Quick disclaimer: This post was inspired via a chat on Twitter with the team at Compare and Recycle, who made the excellent infographic in this post. However, I have no affiliation with them, or any other company mentioned here, and make no financial gains from anything linked in this article.
There’s a pretty significant chance that you’re reading this post on a smartphone or tablet. These devices have become firmly embedded in our lives, with over five billion people expected to own a mobile phone by 2019.
Phones and tablets have arguably saved the production of a lot of other materials in what they’ve been able to replace. My phone really isn’t just a phone – it’s my calculator, diary, pedometer, food planner, personal trainer, virtual yoga instructor, note-taker, camera, video, music collection and it provides storage for countless magazines, newspapers and books.
Internationally, mobile phones have leapfrogged a number of older technologies to provide an important role in society. A great example of this is the huge growth of Kenya’s M-PESA mobile money service, which 40% of Kenya’s GDP passes through. The M-PESA service, which started as a microfinance initiative, now allows people to transfer money for services, and offers loans and savings opportunities. The virtual nature of the service has saved many hours of time and money for its users, especially in the most rural areas of the country as they no longer need to take long journeys to physical buildings to access money. You can read more about M-PESA in this Economist article or in Kate Raworth’s excellent book, Doughnut Economics.
But whilst it’s great that our phones have replaced the need for countless bit of other ‘stuff’, there is a huge environmental impact from the production and running of our tech that we do need to address.
Firstly, there is the sheer number of devices. In 2014 we reached the point where there were more mobile phones in circulation than people on the planet. These have to come from somewhere, and they also have to go somewhere, which is something of a environmental and social nightmare:
A number of minerals essential in the manufacture of mobile phones are known to come from places where child and slave labour is used, and numerous examples of human rights violations have been documented by organisations like Amnesty International.
In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, there have been reports of children as young as seven being forced to work to mine cobalt. As much as 35% of the profits from mineral mining goes towards armed groups in the region.
It is thought that 5.4 million people have lost their lives as a result of the conflict in the Congo. Through buying products with these materials in, we are almost certainly contributing to this situation, however small our individual purchase may seem.
It’s estimated $40 billion of usable materials from electronics are thrown away each year.
The scale of e-waste is huge. This page from www.ifixit.org puts it in context very well when they state: “If you put every blue whale alive today on one side of a scale and one year of US e-waste on the other, the e-waste would be heavier.”
So without giving up tech altogether, and becoming disconnected from the goings on elsewhere (although that may well have some appeal!), what’s the best way to try and ensure your device isn’t contributing to climate change, conflict or unnecessary pollution?
Possibly unsurprisingly, the answers seems to be the same as pretty much any other environmentally-minded purchase:
Buy well – Make it last – Use responsibly – Choose repair before replace – Send it back into the circular economy
Ideally this means pre-loved and second-hand. The best use of materials are the ones already in place. You can start by asking friends and family if they have one collecting dust that they’d sell to you.
There is a wealth of pre-loved tech on Ebay, from people selling their old handsets. If you decide to try this, I recommend making sure the sellers have good ratings (and aren’t suspiciously selling a lot of phones despite not being a business!), and that you’ve read the description and looked at the photos very closely to check for defects. Over the last decade, I have purchased three iPhones and two iPads this way and all of them have been just as good as new, for much less money. They’ve often arrived with cases included, meaning one less thing to purchase. Old chargers I already had can be used with new phones, just replacing the cord as needed.
Physical shops buying and selling refurbished and second hand phones, like CEX in the UK. The downside of an actual shop is that it tends to be a bit pricier, but has the advantage of being you being able to see and touch the phone before purchasing.
Consider refurbished phones, which are covered by a warranty and will have been extensively tested before sale. See what is available at a variety of sellers on Compare and Recycle.
If you must buy new, consider something like the Fairphone. Their phones are made to be long-lasting, modular (and therefore more easily repairable), and made with traceable source materials.
Make it last
If you’re the kind of person who drops your phone a lot, get a big, squishy case for it – the materials used in that are going to be a LOT less than a new phone. Sometimes the bits and bobs like screen protectors, cases etc. are going to be worth it if it means you can keep the phone in good condition for longer.
Instead of leaving your phone to charge overnight, why not charge it in the hour before bed and give it a little top up in the morning, and try and avoid apps that drain battery life.
Using your phone responsibly includes the SIM card, and one of the perks of buying second hand is that SIM-only deals are much cheaper than ones where you’re also paying for the phone itself. UK-based people can try Ecotalk, part of the Ecotricity family. Their service is powered by 100% green energy and they work with a number of environmental charities, like Friends of the Earth and Buglife.
Finally, use it less! There’s a growing amount of evidence that too much phone use can lower our moods and disrupt our sleep patterns.
Choose repair before replace
Despite most manufacturers making it very difficult to take phones apart, there is usually a way into pretty much any device. Try www.ifixit.com if you dare attempt it yourself, or services like Repairly, who pick up your broken phone and bring it back fixed (a personal recommendation), repair shops, or your nearest Repair Cafe.
Send it back into the circular economy
Once you truly have reached the end of the road with your phone, for gods sake don’t throw it away! Now you know the journey your phone has been on to reach you, you know how important those resources are. If it’s still usable, give or sell it on. If not, there are still plenty of places that will take it for refurbishment or parts. Try the search at Compare and Recycle to see which company offers the best deal.
So, in conclusion…
Whilst I obviously can’t take any responsibility for your experiments in buying your next phone, or anything that happens to it if you attempt a repair, I really hope that you’ll consider trying some of the suggestions in this post, rather than upgrading to another new device.
What are your tips for extending the life of your gadgets? Do you love your Fairphone and have you repaired it yourself? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below.