Measuring the total cost of a smartphone

We cannot survive as a species if we do not measure the total costs to the Earth and the environment of our activities. This total cost accounting begins with examining how the things we use on a day-to-day basis are made.

Thea Kleinmagd is a circular material chains innovator at Fairphone. When you are buying your next smartphone, please consider Fairphone. They make excellent, modular and repairable products that are built to last. I started our chat by asking Thea to describe the potential toxic impacts of some of the over 50 different materials found in a typical smartphone.

“More than 70% of the total human and ecological toxicity is caused during the production of a phone,” Thea replied. “The toxic substances are not necessarily the substances in the phone itself. It can be that the substances used in production are the toxic ones. The gold in the phone is often washed out from the ore using mercury, which is a toxic and very unhealthy substance to work with. This is why it’s so important to hold on to your phone as long as possible. Lead is still used in the printed circuit boards and the LCD screens. Other problematic substances include flame retardants, which are very hazardous materials and very hard to recycle because they are basically spread through the different plastics.

Less than 20% of e-waste is recycled. The BBC reported that 5.3 billion phones will be thrown away in 2022. “There are quite a few, for example, that end up in household waste,” Thea explains. “That means that the phone takes a different route to recycle. It goes into base metal recycling and these processes are not focused on taking care of hazardous materials and preventing them from escaping into the environment. If they are illegally exported to places like Africa, then they often end up in the informal recycling sector. Then they are ‘recycled’ but the conditions are very unhealthy and very polluting for the people who work in this sector. Often the plastics of the phone are burned, releasing toxic emissions into the air, and those will come down again and enter the soil and water.”

Because we have become so extraordinarily wasteful as a species, particularly in the last fifty years, there has been an absolutely massive increase in destructive mining practices. In 1970, we were digging and blasting out of the Earth some 25 billion tons of material a year. By 2050, it’s estimated we will be mining and blasting some 170 billion tons. The mass of Mount Everest is 150 billion tons. This is utterly, absolutely and totally unsustainable. We must transform our attitudes to Earth’s materials, from water to soil, from aluminum to lithium. Once we have extracted a particular material, we must keep it in use for the longest possible time.

“We really need to look at the lifetime of the phone,” Thea explains. “We just need to produce fewer of them.” Imagine that statement coming from Apple or Samsung. Not possible. They practice planned obsolescence—the extreme opposite. Only citizen action will get these brands to change their life-destroying practices.

Thea Kleinmagd: Designing a smartphone that lasts


Podcast: World Wide Waste
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