Research shows environmental impact of smartphones, mobile contracts

New research shows that smartphones could be more detrimental to the environment than previously thought (
The manufacturing of smartphones uses vast amounts of natural resources such as gold, silver, and copper. (

Nick Fetty | June 11, 2015

New research out of the University of Surrey in England finds that current mobile phone business models are having a greater environmental impact that previous thought.

The study was published this week in the International Journal of Life Cycle Assessment. The researchers found that current mobile phone contracting practices have led to the manufacturing of more smartphones which require large amounts of natural resources such as gold, silver, and copper. These practices have also led to increased CO2 emissions.

The researchers calculated that there are approximately 85 million unused phones in the U.K. Combined these phones contain roughly 4 tons of gold and have used up about £110 million or more than $170,000,000 worth of resources. Additionally, the manufacturing of these devices has led to the equivalent of 84,000 tons of CO2 being released into the atmosphere.

“The current business model of mobile contracts encourages consumers to upgrade frequently, regardless of whether their current phone is fit for purpose. Our study shows that there is little incentive for people to recycle old mobiles. Unfortunately this leaves many unused devices lingering in drawers, until they are eventually thrown away and end up in landfill. This isn’t a trend that can continue if we are to have the mobile lifestyle we want, while still ensuring a sustainable future,” lead author Dr. James Suckling said in a press release.

The authors suggested utilizing a “cloud-based product service system” which would lessen the need for complex processing systems that require large quantities of resources. The researchers also suggested a “take-back” clause for mobile service contracts which would encourage customers to retain devices for longer periods of time and to return devices to the manufacturer when the contract expires.

The study also found that people tend to hold on to old phones and instead suggest that these devices be properly recycled so their materials can be reused.

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