Toxic legacy of the smartphone

Sixteen billion smartphones have been sold since 2007. During the manufacturing process, each one of them caused an average of 60 kg of CO2, dirtied 14,000 liters of water and resulted in 90 kg of toxic mining waste. In total, that's 950 million tons of CO2, 1.4 billion tons of toxic mining waste, and 214 billion tons of dirty water.

The recycling rate for smartphones is abysmal because basically they're not worth recycling. Globally, about 15% are currently recycled and of those that are recycled, about 30% of reusable materials are recovered. That means that of all the materials mined for a smartphone, only 5% will be reused. The other 95%, often highly toxic, will end up polluting our water, soil and air.

There are a lot of materials and substances in smartphones. Katie Singer has so far mapped 125 substances. "Take polysilicon," she explains. "To manufacture it, pure quartz gravel, a pure carbon (like petroleum coke – an oil byproduct from the Tar Sands), and a dense wood (like Amazonian eucalyptus) are put into a smelter to ‘reduce’ the silicon from the quartz. I consider the quartz gravel, the petroleum coke and the wood three substances that go into making a smartphone." Katie has done and continues to do amazing work on charting the environmental impacts of digital.

Brian Merchant, in his excellent book The One Device, got a detailed analysis done of the materials in an iPhone 6. He estimated that the total cost of the raw materials used to make the phone was $1. Imagine that? One dollar. No wonder the world is broken. No wonder humans are poisoning the environment. We have so little respect for our environment and its materials. Of a $700 phone, the material cost is $1. At the end of that phone's life, what are the materials worth? 20 cent? No wonder there's no money in recycling.

We have built an economic model that in no remote way calculates the true and total cost to the Earth and our environment of the things we produce and consume. Not even remotely close. The environment pays the cost of the whole toxic process of making a smartphone. The 950 million tons of CO2, the 1.4 billion tons of toxic mining waste, the 214 billion tons of dirty water, are what we ask the environment to pay.

And this is just the tip of the toxic melting iceberg when it comes to the impact of the smartphone. Because 95% of the environmental damage the smartphone does is as a consumption engine that makes it so easy for us to devour everything in front of us for a whim, for our convenience, for our frivolous desires. We buy five pairs of cheap jeans with our phones, knowing that we'll only keep one. Then, we send four back because, you know, "free" shipping.

The smartphone has been a key architect of World Wide Waste. Social media is advertising media. And all this waste, all this easy convenience, has it made us happier, has it led to better societies? In the US in 2021 nearly 60% of teenage girls reported feeling "persistent sadness."

There are alternatives. We don't have to live this way. We don't have to be addicts to the algorithm. We can live better and healthier and happier lives with less technology, with less materials, and at the same time save our environment. The change demanded of us is cultural, habitual. And the foundation of that change should be a philosophy of zero waste.

Podcast: World Wide Waste
Interviews with prominent thinkers outlining what can be done to make digital as sustainable as possible.
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