A smartphone shares its life journey with its owner, and helps us think about where smartphones go once we are done using them.
When I was introduced to the world, I was elated to be in the spotlight. The internet, television, newspapers, schools, colleges, offices pretty much everywhere you go, I was all that people could speak about. The day I reached my current home, I saw a replica of me in the waste bin. Of course my colour was more trendy than this replica. I guess it must have become very old and non-functional for them to throw it out.
And just like that 2 years passed.
That was when I understood what I actually witnessed 2 years back when I arrived.
I asked my human, “I just heard you telling your mom that you are putting me up for an exchange offer. Is that true?”
My Human said, “Yes! All my friends have the newly released version of you which has better features and it comes in cool midnight purple colours. I have to exchange you for the new model otherwise I will be the only one left out.”
I looked confused and mumbled under my breath, “But I work just fine!”. I knew that everyone would fall prey to the marketing strategies of my makers and my human was no exception. Little did I know that my makers only wanted to give me 2 years to function before they launched a new version of 'me'. Had they used better materials, or given me the ability to upgrade to the latest specs, I would have been functional for much longer.
The above narrative is applicable to almost every single smartphone in our world. The scenario was a case of perceived obsolescence in action.
The life of a smartphone
Global smartphone market grows 5% every year. The average life of a smartphone is estimated to be 4.7 years. Smartphone companies practise planned obsolescence as a business strategy to increase their sales. They ensure this by various methods such as releasing new models of smartphones each year, releasing softwares which cannot be supported by existing device models and by using materials which are not efficient for prolonged usage to name a few. Smartphone users also wish to change/ upgrade their smartphones to the latest versions to keep up with the latest trend.
Where does your smartphone go when you throw it away?
The amount of e-waste generated is growing exponentially each year. The entire process of smartphone production is questionable in terms of sustainability since it is a linear model. The linear model of processing is also known as the - cradle to grave method since raw materials are extracted from the earth to make products and the unused materials are thrown as waste. This goes for the manufactured products at the end of their use.
In addition to this, tons of wastes are generated in each step of the process of smartphone production. The amount of energy consumption and CO2 emissions in this process, impacts and poses a huge threat to the environment. The amount of energy consumed to build a device is called ‘Emergy’. The amount of ‘emergy’ required to create a modern smartphone is roughly 1 gigajoule which is approximately 278 kW or 73 times the electricity used to charge the smartphone for a year. Smartphones are composed of many rare earth materials which have to be mined from the earth. Mining comes with a variety of social problems including large scale displacement of humans and animals, poor labour conditions, using up of limited natural resources and energy consumption which leads to climate change.
Around 140 million smartphones are thrown away every year and most of them are disposed of in landfills or dumped on the ground. The smartphone is composed of multiple raw minerals. More than 15 minerals used in the smartphone manufacture have a recycle rate of <1 % which implies that the remaining 99% is dumped on the ground or in a water body causing pollution. Some of the raw materials in the smartphone leech into the ground and are toxic to the environment. In some cases this also leads to detrimental effects on groundwater.
Are we recycling enough?
Of the millions of smartphones disposed of every year, less than 16% are recycled properly. In a country like India, where 3 million tonnes of e-waste are generated every year, only 170 authorised recyclers exist. Most of these recyclers only dismantle the e-waste and not recycle it. 25% of the e-waste in India, is dumped in landfills in a place called Seelampur.
At Seelampur, thousands of men, women and children work in the unorganised e-waste sector under deplorable labour conditions. They are employed on a meagre salary of 200 rupees (~ 2$ ) per day in such toxic working conditions. The workers at Seelampur are not equipped sufficiently to handle the extraction of heavy metals and elements such as gold, copper, silver, lead, cyanide, etc as a result, only 20-30% of minerals are efficiently extracted. E-waste recycling poses serious health hazards to the workers and most of them cough constantly. The Air Quality Index of Seelampur is so dangerous that even a few minutes of exposure could lead to serious health effects.
What can we do to fix the problem?
We are at a point where we have to think of all possible alternatives to reduce E-waste generation. Circular economy or cradle to cradle model involves the effective use of resources and reducing the waste generation as much as possible. In terms of smartphone production, few companies have come forward with the agenda to re-use or source secondary materials in the making of new products. Renewable energy usage has been considered by some companies as a means of ‘closing the loop’. Producing products that can be repaired or upgraded to the latest software specs will steer consumer behaviour away from planned and perceived obsolescence.
Let's become more conscious consumers of technology, and treat our smartphones and the planet better!