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Your #smartphone is polluting and generating a massive amount of waste.
Your #smartphone is polluting and generating a massive amount of waste.
Waste Waste Recycling

Your smartphone is worse for the environment than you think
Woman in a street at night looking on her #smartphone
When you think about environmental pollution, plants are likely to appear with their dark polluting clouds and cars with their exhaust fumes. The ICT sector is often not mentioned when we talk about environmental pollution and is seen by many as good for the environment, because it replaces certain polluting physical activities by making them virtual. A survey by Inverse, however, shows that the ICT sector on the contrary contributes quite a bit to pollution and that your smartphone plays a major role in this.

ICT sector by 2040 half as polluting as transport sector

The study looked at the contribution of devices such as laptops, PCs, smartphones, tablets and monitors. We also looked at the required infrastructure, such as communication networks and data centers. It appears that the relative global footprint of the ICT industry is expected to grow from 1 percent in 2007 to 3.5 percent by 2020 and even 14 percent by 2040. That is more than half the contribution of the global transport sector. Particularly worrying is that this growth increases largely incrementally.

Smartphone becoming increasingly polluting

Especially smartphones seem to provide a large percentage of pollution as a group. Within the ICT sector, the contribution to pollution would grow from 4 percent in 2010 to 11 percent by 2020. That is more than laptops, PCs and monitors each contribute. If we look at absolute figures, the contribution of the smartphone to environmental pollution increases from 17 megatons of CO2 per year to 125 megatons of CO2 emissions per year.

Production smartphones major culprit

However, the majority of this pollution is not caused by the use of smartphones, but by the production of the devices. In addition to the energy to make the smartphones, the mines also provide the necessary materials such as gold, yttrium and lanthanum for pollution. What also contributes to the pollution are the mobile subscriptions, which encourage people to buy a new device every two years. As a result, more devices have to be produced and more waste from old smartphones is generated, which are not recycled. But about 1 percent of the devices would actually be recycled.
A man in a production hall of #smartphones with a white cover for his mouth

Mobile communication stimulates pollution

If we look at the infrastructure, data centers and communication networks would grow from 215 megatons of CO2 per year in 2007 to 764 megatons of CO2 per year by 2020.

For comparison: in 2016, the emissions of the whole of Canada are 730 megatons of CO2. The growth of mobile networks and data centers is stimulated by the growing mobile communication. For every message and every email that you send, there has to be a server somewhere to process the data. These servers are also active day and night.

Mobile communication boosted by software

Although there is a lot of pollution in the name of the hardware, the software seems to stimulate this. Mobile operating systems such as Android and iOS and the corresponding growing group of apps stimulate mobile communication. In addition, large software companies such as Google, Amazon and Facebook have the largest data centers in the world.

What to do?

So it looks like smartphones may become even more polluting at some point than cars. Especially since we will soon be switching to electric cars that no longer emit CO2. The solution seems to be far-reaching.

Are you really going to send fewer apps because they contribute to environmental pollution? What you could at least do is recycle your old smartphone when you buy a new one and maybe you do not need a new device too often.

We can also focus on using as much sustainable energy as possible. A report shows that it should be possible to use only renewable energy sources by 2050.

Ilona Braam