The Footprint of a Smartphone – How Far Can One Trace It?

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It is not without good reason that the smartphone industry is so popular with sustainability experts; it is a huge industry, sure, but its social and behavioral aspects make it that much more intriguing to investigate than, say, airlines. Add to that the profound complexity of its value chain—did you know more companies are now involved in the smartphone industry than in the automotive one?—and you can see why it makes the perfect crash test for the latest methodologies in CO2 footprint assessment.

So how does one measure the footprint of a smartphone? Big players like Apple seem content with the traditional approach of measuring the greenhouse gas emissions of production facilities. Quite conveniently so: Between 2008 and 2012, Apple extensively introduced renewables and announced it had managed to decrease the CO2 emissions per dollar of revenue from its manufacturing facilities by a respectable 21.5 percent. However, Apple sold twice as many phones in 2012, for a higher price, than it did in 2008, and the company’s overall absolute greenhouse emissions are estimated to have increased by 34 percent in 2012 alone.

And that accounts for only the manufacturing of the device. Suppliers, logistics and the operation of Apple stores, for instance, are not accounted for. And what about CEO Tim Cook’s frequent flights to Foxconn lately? How does that translate into a CO2 value attached to a device?

It doesn’t. CO2 footprinting has long proved to be completely inadequate in accounting for the environmental consequences of one more smartphone sold in the market. Experts have turned to more comprehensive methods, such as Life Cycle Assessment. LCA strives to look at the entire lifespan of a smartphone, from the procurement of material input in its absolutely raw form to its disposal or reuse. And to consider not only emissions along the way but also any form of threat to the natural environment and human welfare alike.

Jyri Seppälä at the World Resources Forum 2013.

Photo courtesy of Robert Stuermer

Jyri Seppälä at the World Resources Forum 2013.

Easier said than done. LCA researchers struggle with undisclosed or insufficient data, complex value chains, a multifaceted product and elements that are still hard to assess (e.g., damage by radiation or, simply, the limits of human imagination). Professor Jyri Seppälä, of the Finnish Ministry of Environment’s Centre for Sustainable Consumption and Production, is one of many who have taken up this challenge. His main contribution, the Prosuite framework, categorizes the impact of smartphones according to five “pillars”: human health, social welfare, exhaustible resources, natural environment and human prosperity.

The rare-earth issue is particularly characteristic of the far-reaching consequences of an inherently unsustainable device design. Rare-earth minerals, like neodymium, tantalum and lanthanum, are responsible for many the standout properties of your cutting-edge smartphone. Lanthanum is used to polish the device’s super-smooth glass screen and, in LCDs, to make bright colors pop out, while neodymium magnets boost the power of the speakers and vibration units.

But those rare earths are labeled “rare” for a reason: They are not in abundance and are extremely hard to recycle. Yet the smartphone industry currently holds a big piece of the pie. Seppälä brings up the example of tantalum: 42 percent of the 2010 global output was devoured by smartphone manufacturers alone. Also, more than 90 percent of rare earths mined over the past decade come from China, while much of the rest is recovered in fragile states like the Democratic Republic of Congo under controversial conditions—not to mention leaving behind a desert of gaping craters.

The Fairphone is the latest take on crossbreeding the Fairtrade movement and smartphones. Designed to eliminate rare earths—or source them exclusively from “fair” extractors—and set to achieve a record-low CO2 footprint while backed by an ambitious green-themed campaign, it invites people to preorder to back the project’s growth. The Phoneblok is another forward-thinking concept that could indicate the direction the industry might be headed in—that of repair and reuse. Think of a phone device made up of interchangeable, Lego-like blocks, each block a separate function (battery, screen, gyroscope, camera etc.). Simply swap out any malfunctioning block, and you have a design that obsolescence can’t touch.

So which model will persevere? Will a Fairphone of sorts win consumers over? Will we re-think device reusability? Or will 2020 find us holding an ever brighter, sonically more articulate, sharper iPhone 15s, though one that might still be assembled from “blood diamonds” in sweatshops?

Seppälä strongly believes that will not be the case: Upcoming developments in device design will focus on eliminating rare earths from smartphones and extending their lifespan. For now, he points to the example of Motorola, which is urgently moving to ensure that its tantalum is extracted only in Congo’s conflict-free regions. This might not solve the problem, but it indicates how consumers’ sensitivity in such matters can make a difference. Seppälä admits that researchers must also “move quickly to cater to all these side effects of rare-earth extraction in Life Cycle Assessment calculations. Today, only the resource depletion aspect is accounted for.”

However, “none of that will matter if we are not alert to the increasing impact of the operation of networks themselves—the implications of data traffic,” he says. “A cellphone is nowadays first and foremost a gateway to the expanding virtual world. By 2030, or perhaps way earlier, the CO2 footprint of a megabyte—namely, how you use your phone—will matter far more than how it is built.”

Do you know how far the carbon footprint of your phone goes?

flickr / jfingas under Creative Commons

Do you know how far the carbon footprint of your phone goes?

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