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The environmental price of the smart phone and computing industry

A new study examined the environmental impact of the information and communication technology industry and came back with alarming conclusions

electronic waste. Illustration: shutterstock
electronic waste. illustration: hutterstock

Ahead of Earth Day, which was celebrated on April 22, Apple introduced "Daisy", a new robot capable of dismantling 200 iPhones per hour and extracting precious metals from them that can be reused. According to Apple, Daisy, which is an upgrade of Apple's previous recycling robot (called Liam), was developed to "reduce the need to mine resources from the Earth."

The more smartphones and other advanced communication devices enter our lives, the greater their impact on the environment. A new study analyzes the damage caused to the environment due to information and communication technologies, and shows that in 2020 the smartphone is expected to be the most harmful to the environment among the devices that belong to this industry.

In a study conducted by a pair of researchers from Canada and recently published in the Journal of Cleaner Production, the researchers evaluated, based on data from various sources, collected starting in 2007, the carbon footprint of the information and communication technology industry - that is, how much the information and communication industry contributes to overcoming Climate change (this industry includes, among other things, the multitude of components of internet and cellular networks, computers of various types, etc.).

The researchers examined the environmental impact of portable and stationary computers and computer monitors throughout all stages of their production and use, as well as the impact of the technological infrastructure that enables the use of these devices: servers, network equipment, communication operators, etc. Based on these data, the researchers also estimated what the industry's impact on the environment is expected to be in 2040.

The more smartphones and other advanced communication devices enter our lives, the greater their impact on the environment. Photo: Leon Liu on Unsplash
11 percent of greenhouse gas emissions
Before bringing them to the stake, it should be noted that smartphones have certain environmental benefits, such as the fact that one smartphone now replaces many devices that we used in the not-too-distant past, such as a camera and an mp3 player. Thus, it eliminates the environmental impact that each device could have on its own. However, smartphones cause a lot of environmental damage. The researchers found that in 2020 smartphones are expected to be responsible for 11 percent of the greenhouse gas emissions of the information and communication technology industry - this compared to only four percent in 2010.

As mentioned, the impact of smartphones on the environment is expected to be greater than the impact of stationary computers, which in 2010 were responsible for 18 percent of industrial emissions and are expected to be responsible for 7 percent in 2020, as well as the impact of laptops, computer monitors or tablets.

The total amount of greenhouse gases that will be emitted due to smartphones is expected to exceed 17 million tons (when methane gas, nitrogen dioxide and other greenhouse gases are normalized as equivalence 2CO - equivalent to the effect of carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas) in 2010, no less than 125 million tons in 2020–a jump of 730 percent in 10 years. For comparison, in 2015, 80 million tons of greenhouse gases were emitted in the entire State of Israel, from all sources.

The increase in the use of smartphones is one of the reasons for the general increase in the carbon footprint of the information technology and communication industry. While in 2007 this industry was responsible for 1-1.6 percent of all global greenhouse gas emissions, the number is expected to increase to 3-3.6 percent in 2020, and if current trends continue, researchers predict that the industry will be responsible for no less than 14 percent of The global carbon footprint until 2040 - about half of the impact of transportation today, and more than the impact of agriculture, which is currently responsible for nine percent of the global carbon footprint. The factor in the information and communication technology industry that is responsible for the greatest damage to the environment is the data centers, which operate the various networks, and are expected to be responsible for 45 percent of the industry's emissions in 2020. This is mainly because their operation consumes large amounts of energy, the source of which is often polluting fossil fuels.

In 2017, over one and a half billion smartphones were sold worldwide, compared to 680 million "only" in 2012. In 2016, 28 percent of the world's population had a smartphone, and according to predictions, by 2020 this figure will rise to 37 percent. In the US alone, the volume of smartphone sales in 2017 was about 55.5 billion dollars.

A problem in production and not in use

Surprisingly, the daily use of smartphones does not consume very large amounts of energy (although sometimes it seems that way, when we run out of battery again in the middle of the day) and the stage in the life of smartphones that is responsible for the greatest environmental damage is its production, which leads to no less than 85-95 percent of gas emissions Her greenhouse is responsible for the devices. Beyond the large amount of energy consumed by the production process itself, the internal components of the smartphones are partly made of precious metals such as gold, the mining process of which causes enormous environmental damage.

For example, out of the 95 kilograms of greenhouse gases that are released during the life cycle of an iPhone 6 smartphone, about 81 kilograms are released in its manufacturing process. "The components are also becoming a significant part of the overall environmental cost," says Dr. Vared Blas, a faculty member at the Kohler Faculty of Management and head of the Laboratory for Innovation in Industrial Ecology at Tel Aviv University. Thus, for example, each iPhone 8 device with a memory of 64 gigabytes causes the emission of 57 kilograms of greenhouse gases during its lifetime, while the same device with a memory of 256 gigabytes causes the emission of 71 kilograms of greenhouse gases.

"When we buy a product, it's worth checking how much the company that produced it has invested in environmental and sustainable design," says Blas. Apple, for example, publishes environmental reports on its devices online, while this information is more difficult to locate for products from companies such as Samsung. The Dutch company Fairphone grew and did, and established environmental friendliness as one of the central values ​​in the production of its smartphone.

After the environmentally harmful production phase comes the smartphone usage phase, but it usually doesn't last long. Even if you're not one of those people who stand in line for hours in front of Apple stores every time a new model comes out, there's a good chance you have a hard time remembering the smartphone you've had for more than two years. The companies encourage the rapid turnover, which brings them a lot of money, new and more sophisticated models are constantly coming to the market and tempt us to upgrade, the old devices quickly become slower, and if you have not yet been convinced to change your phone, at some point something in the device will break down - and it will be more profitable to buy a new one Than to fix it.

The problem: informal recycling
Even if we recycle our old smartphone, the situation is still far from perfect. The precious metals are the only parts of the device that are recycled, and they make up only 10-15 percent of it. In some parts of the world, "recycling" is actually burning electronic waste in the open air. Recently, a new book called "Ctrl-X: A Topography of E-Waste" was published that traces the phenomenon of "informal" recycling of electronic waste and where the unsupervised process is documented in photos, which harms the environment and the health of the residents of the area. This kind of recycling takes place, among other things, in certain places in China, India and Africa, but also much closer to us: residents of Ha'bal Lachish have often complained about the burning of electronic waste in the nearby Hebron area, which caused the release of harmful substances into the air and the creation of respiratory hazards, smoke and severe odors.

According to Apple, the Daisy robot was created out of the company's ambition that one day its devices will be made exclusively from recycled materials. Unfortunately, that day has not yet arrived, and in the meantime the most significant step we as consumers can take to reduce the damage our smartphones do to the environment is simply not to replace devices so frequently. "It's good to use the phone we already have as much as possible, to slow down the crazy exchange rate a little," Blas concludes.

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