Is our Obsession with Mobile Phones Damaging the Environment?

Whether you are walking down the street, riding in a taxi, or waiting at an Underground station, daily life is inundated with mobile phone use. If people around you aren’t talking on their mobile device, they are texting a mate or catching up on the latest news. Mobile carriers around the world understand how hooked human society has become on smartphones, and as such new devices are constantly rolling out with bigger screens, faster processors, and better cameras. What impact is all of this technology having on the world we all inhabit?

With consumers seeking out the latest and greatest each year, mobile phone carriers and developers are trying to shift manufacturing processes to become more eco-friendly. In addition, many mobile carriers conduct exchange and recycling programs to encourage users to responsibly dispose of their old mobile devices.

Just how harmful are these advanced technologies that so many of us rely upon? In order to manufacture the typical mobile device, a surprising number of toxins are used or produced and precious resources are wasted. Heavy metals such as mercury, cadmium, and lead were prevalent in older models, though newer devices feature less of these toxins. While the amount in one mobile device is small, the collective effect can be devastating when millions end up in a landfill. These toxins, left unchecked upon disposal, can lead to cancer in humans and infiltrate groundwater supplies from landfill sites.

On top of the presence of these harmful toxins, precious resources are consumed making and using mobile devices. The average device has a small amount of gold in its circuitry. Put together the gold from 200 phones and you would have enough from a wedding ring. The plants that manufacture devices suck power from local grids and pump out carbon dioxide. Charging your phone, and worse leaving the charger plugged in even when the phone isn’t charging, also releases carbon dioxide because the chargers are using energy from local power grids.

One person’s usage habits for charging may be a small drop in the bucket, with unused chargers drawing .1-.5 watts of energy while still plugged in. The cumulative effect of simply charging mobile devices adds an estimated 50 million tonnes of carbon dioxide to the planet each year.

There were an estimated 491.4 million smartphones sold worldwide in 2011. All mobile devices together in 2006 accounted for just over a billion sold. By 2012 an estimated 657 million smartphones, only smartphones, will be sold across the globe. With so many phones flying off the shelves, it is critical that carriers and manufacturers exercise environmental responsibility.

While it sounds all gloom and doom in the world of mobile phones, companies are reacting to calls from nations and international bodies to act in environmentally responsible ways. The United Nations (UN) and European Union (EU) have put several measures in place in recent years to force mobile manufacturers and carriers to cover the costs of “e-waste” disposal and recycling, and also to encourage eco-friendly designs.

Manufacturers have already responded by designing phones with recycled materials, using fewer toxins in the development of phones, and striving to reduce emissions from plants where devices are assembled. NEC, for example, proudly boasts devices that are made with bioplastics derived from plants. Additionally, their plants in Japan produce 50% less carbon dioxide due to the use of renewable energy sources at the plant.

Nokia, once the largest mobile device manufacturer, strictly abides by the EU’s Restriction of Hazardous Substances (RoHS) Directive. All 10 of the company’s plants around the world produce devices that, following the RoHS guidelines, contain no lead, cadmium, mercury, hexavalent chromium, PBB, or PDBE.

In order to remain effective tools, mobile devices are always going to require the use of substances that can be harmful to the planet in one way or another. It is a sad fact of life, but technology comes with a cost. Manufacturers and carriers are increasingly encouraging users to recycle phones and turn them in for reuse, but at a certain point the burden of responsibility also shifts to the user.

An estimated 140 million phones were disposed of in 2007, but only 14 million were recycled. The other 126 million were simply thrown out. If people insist upon getting a new device each year, then a portion of the responsibility falls on them to ensure their phone is properly disposed of. Keeping a device for just one more year helps cut down on the impact mobile devices can have on the environment.

Mobile phones don’t have to have a negative impact on the planet. Eco-friendly designs and responsible disposal programs offered by manufacturers and carriers can only do so much. Users have to be willing to wisely dispose of their devices as well. Together both sides can ensure that mobile phones don’t have a negative impact on the environment.

Kelly DuPont is a freelance technology writer with over 10 years experience. She enjoys researching and writing about new technology trends, especially mobile technology and raves about her sim only mobile phone.

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