When it comes to being eco-friendly, smartphones aren’t exactly star performers… not by a long shot! But instead of focusing solely on the negatives, it is important to recognize the efforts that manufacturers are making to limit the planetary disaster they’ve dragged us into and learn about initiatives gradually being implemented to reduce the pollution we generate with our precious phones.
A wake-up call on the glaring lack of environmental ethics
Between the depletion of resources needed for their production and the undeniable biodiversity damage caused by toxic emissions into the environment, smartphones are absolutely devastating to the environment, our health, and society. What’s more, 80% of the greenhouse gas emissions from the lifecycle of a smartphone come from its production alone. Next comes its assembly, transport, distribution, and use. Smartphones are also made primarily from materials that turn into highly polluting waste, particularly due to parts used to manufacture the intricate electronic components, such as the microprocessor and the screen. Such parts are hard to recycle, if they can be recycled at all.
Not so “smart” after all, are they?
From planned obsolescence to technological obsolescence
Smartphones conflate planned, technological, aesthetic, and even psychological obsolescence. You heard it right!
By offering devices whose batteries are glued or welded in place, with no replaceable parts, manufacturers considerably limit the life of a smartphone. On top of that, they require exclusive operating systems, and they even, in some cases, limit software updates, trapping us with planned obsolescence and technological obsolescence.
Also, by regularly releasing new devices with flashy new features that consumers don’t actually use, manufacturers bend over backward to entice us into buying newer models, even if our “old” smartphone is still in good condition. After all, at just two years old, our phone looks downright ancient compared to the latest devices. This is what we mean by aesthetic or psychological obsolescence.
The temptation is real, y’all!
However, by using your smartphone for as long as possible, you are actively helping to limit the production of new devices and therefore protecting people and the environment. Thankfully, some people get this concept!
The trend toward eco-design
Today, it takes 70 kg of natural resources to manufacture a single smartphone, and those resources often come from conflict areas, plastics, and other toxic substances or rare earths and are often extracted using forced labor or even slavery.
Among its initiatives aimed at less polluting technology, the European Union wants to encourage smartphone manufacturers to offer, among other things, devices with removable batteries that users could easily replace if they wear out. As mentioned earlier, too many smartphones contain sealed battery compartments that obviously make it impossible to replace the battery without going to a specialized service provider capable of doing this. This is especially true of Apple iPhones and Samsung phones, to name a few. Of course, some people didn’t need a slap on the wrist to make the move to modular phones, like the Fairphone brand, for example.
It’s important to understand that, these days, changing how smartphones are designed would benefit both consumers and the environment. By tightening eco-design regulations, the mass production of phones would exert less pressure on the planet’s limited resources, and our phones would have a longer lifespan because repairs, updates, and recycling would all be easier.
Eco-design is not limited only to the manufacture of physical devices (hardware). It also encompasses web eco-design, which is the environmentally-friendly design of the software that makes our devices run. To understand the usefulness of such measures, remember that each and every action online requires a network (whether it is Wifi, 4G, or soon 5G). Data flow over the network and its storage in datacenters requires a tremendous amount of energy. As a result, digital technology today accounts for 4% of greenhouse gases and consumes more than 10% of the world’s energy. These figures will likely have to be revised upwards in the coming years. This increase can be explained by the fact that, each year, more and more of us own a smartphone and use the internet. Add in a few billion users and the massive use of mobile apps, and we have the mind-blowing consumption of more than 20 TWh, comparable to the annual electricity consumption of a nation like Ireland, for example Yet, by optimizing applications, this energy impact can be reduced, particularly by implementing systems to limit battery consumption.
It is for all these reasons that some companies are trying to create applications that can scan and assess our smartphone’s activity to find ways to consume less energy through realistic, targeted solutions. One example of this is the Plana app that shifts the times when email is received to avoid unnecessary carbon emissions. It would check email when the phone’s owner wakes up, for example. Android is also currently developing an application designed to shift tasks to when the phone is charging, so as not to drain the battery unnecessarily. There is also a move to make apps smaller to reduce their carbon footprint.
Innovations making progress
Staying on this topic, batteries are one of the main weaknesses demonstrated by our smartphones, based on our use. While some users can simply charge their phone at night, others often have to use and abuse the charger all day long because their intensive phone use drains the battery in just a few hours. Fortunately, researchers are exploring this problem to roll out future changes on a wide scale. And some of them are genius!
Deemed the “Holy Grail” of the energy transition, graphene batteries could become a miraculous technology capable of charging a smartphone five times faster with approximately 45% more capacity thanks to a new-generation supercapacitor that can charge a battery in 12 minutes instead of an hour. According to rumors, we can expect to see this battery on the market soon, so hang in there!
There are already devices on the market that charge themselves using the energy generated by movement. This technology can be found in some watches, for example, that charge themselves using body heat. This option is more difficult to apply for our smartphones, however, because it requires contact with the skin. The technology is currently possible only with some smartwatches.
A battery that runs… on urine
Crazy as it may sound, researchers at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation have managed to find a system that collects enough energy from human urine to charge a smartphone. Someday soon, microbial fuel cell technology will make it possible to charge our devices in the most environmentally friendly (and bizarre) way possible, by urinating into a duct attached directly to the smartphone. Convenient when you’ve got to go… and when your battery is about to run out!
Natural battery charging
An interesting idea from MIT, this innovation would make it possible to use sound energy to power our smartphones using batteries that rely solely on nanogenerators and sound. That means that you would simply need to speak near your phone to make it charge all on its own.
Hoping to create smartphones powered exclusively by natural energy, MIT has also succeeded in gathering energy from water in the air. Sure, they were only able to create one microwatt, but bear in mind that it took 30 years of research to create the lithium-ion battery we know today!
Nikola Tesla dreamed of a technology that could transmit energy through the air. Although he is no longer here to see such technology in action, 25-year-old astrobiologist Meredith Perry succeeded in developing the uBeam system that can charge a battery remotely using microwaves that transmit energy directly to a phone over a distance of several meters. Despite raising $28 million for this project, the technology still requires a lot of energy. It is also very expensive and currently offers only a very slow charge. But eventually, it will be possible to charge smartphones, cars, PCs, and other electronic devices permanently with air waves similar to those used for 4G networks today. Sure, it’s not very environmentally friendly, but progress can achieve miracles!
Slated for full-scale testing in late 2020, an Australian researcher has successfully developed a battery that combines lithium and sulfur, powerful enough to give our smartphones five days of battery life without needing to be recharged! Although this technology has been around for many years, sulfur batteries previously were not efficient because the sulfur-based electrode broke down too quickly. The scientist solved this problem easily with a little help from the powder detergent industry. Here again, we have a project fully in line with the momentum of the energy transition!
And why not have smartphones without batteries?
With all these attempts to minimize energy consumption in smartphones, batteries could end up being completely unnecessary. In fact, a prototype battery-free device has already been developed by engineers at the University of Washington. Using components that are already available, the device is powered by a small solar panel and an antenna that picks up radio signals. With this combination, it consumes only 3.5 microwatts. Even though such technology wouldn’t allow us to use a smartphone today, we can dream!
Biomimicry to extend smartphone life
Apart from the battery, there is also the screen to consider. When you drop your smartphone, unless it has a tempered glass screen protector, it has a 50/50 chance of cracking or even breaking. A 2018 study by SquareTrade shows that more than 5,760 phone screens are broken every hour!And just like batteries, replacing them is a nightmare! Maybe not for long…
Canadian researchers have developed a new type of glass that is stronger and more flexible, inspired by the animal world, especially oysters!
Their shells actually consist of multiple layers of calcium carbonate that separate and then come back together when impacted. Using this material for our smartphones would make is possible to have much more solid screens that would not break even after years of use.
Although smartphones themselves are one of the planet’s worst polluters, scientific research is underway to find initiatives and more environmentally friendly solutions that will make it possible to continue using our devices while also reducing damage to the environment.