Smartphone Sustainability Set for Larger Spotlight

July 2, 2021

Written by Ryan Szporer

Smartphones don’t typically spring to mind as requiring a sustainability make-over. After all, the Information and Communication Technology (ICT) industry is, as Lotfi Belkhir of McMaster University in Hamilton, Canada, conceded in a 2018 paper, generally seen as helping other sectors reduce their carbon footprints.  

There’s more than meets the eye, though. 

Getting Global ICT Emissions Under Control 

Entitled “Assessing ICT global emissions footprint,” the paper, which Belkhir co-wrote, outlines trends to 2040 and recommendations to improve the situation. Asked by 6GWorldTM whether he sees the bad outweighing the good, Belkhir said he believes it does, at least for the time being. 

“The world is digital, so there’s a lot of good to it, but… I think it’s fair to say the largest energy consumption due to ICT is more coming from entertainment, social media […] than actual productive work or other positive contributions to the economy or society,” said the Professor at McMaster’s W Booth School of Engineering Practice and Technology. 

Belkhir qualified the statement by saying entertainment and social media do contribute to society, but not at their current out-of-control levels. As a result, he said, mobile computing has led to hypergrowth in datacentres, which he called the biggest polluter of all in the ICT world. 

“It’s a multi-layered, complex structure, which goes from core datacentres to additional layers all the way to edge computing, which is essentially small datacentres around us that are trying to cache and copy and create redundancy to make the data that we need to access closer to us and reduce the latency,” he said. “Each time you create a layer, you’re essentially creating another copy and another back-up and another level of redundancy. That means more energy consumption, more data storage, and a bigger carbon footprint.” 

Smartphone Sector Smartening Up? 

From a device manufacturing perspective, smartphone turnover is prompting change for the better. For example, a new initiative out of Europe is launching an Eco Rating system, which grades smartphones based on five factors: durability, reparability, recyclability, climate efficiency, and resource efficiency.  

Deutsche Telekom (DT), Orange, Telefonica, Telia Company, and Vodafone are behind the joint initiative, which is being rolled out across 24 European countries and will include phones from 12 manufacturers to start. Reached for comment via email, DT Spokesperson Malte Reinhardt said that number is poised to grow. 

“The vast majority of brands is already on board, covering 60-70% of the market. We are in promising talks with the remaining brands,” he wrote. “Also other operators are interested to join, including some from outside Europe.  

“The industry needs to transform towards more sustainability, but the consumer decides and therefore transparency is a necessary first step to allow consumers a conscious choice. Eco Rating is all about creating transparency where there has been no transparency before.” 

Ioiana Luncheon, of the Netherlands-based Fairphone, which develops smartphones with a lower impact on the environment, also commented. She seconded the notion that the initiative is a good first step, but also argued scoring systems oversimplify the nature of the problem in question.  

Luncheon addressed the need to recycle, with Fairphone having achieved a 2019 4.57% return rate (percentage of phones sold that are processed by Fairphone’s European recycling program), according to the company’s latest Impact Report. That number is up from 3.12% in 2018, while Luncheon said it had increased to 18% in 2020. So, there is some progress on that front, but, as she argued, traditional business models encourage users to upgrade their phones even if they still work. As a result, the amount of phones to be recycled increases in the process.  

With that in mind, Luncheon was also asked if consumers need to sacrifice functionality for greater sustainability. She responded by saying not necessarily, touting Fairphone’s design, which features replaceable modules to help make a difference. 

“Technically, nothing should be sacrificed from a functionality perspective, but we want to counter that if ‘good enough’ is ‘good enough’ then why do so many users upgrade their phone every year?” she asked. “Modularity allows users to have the latest features via upgrades without wasting the majority of materials in the phone and that is, in our view, the ideal scenario between having the latest technologies that matter to consumers and also minimising the e-waste we create. 

“Around 1.4 billion mobile phones are sold worldwide every year, but only 20% of these discarded phones are recycled. So this has created a lot of electronic waste. This push for the latest device also has a human cost. From the mines to the factories, the entire electronics supply chain is tainted by unsafe and inhumane working conditions, and sometimes even child labour.” 

ICT Ties to a Dirty Business 

Belkhir acknowledged the mining issue, calling it a very dirty business that has not come close to relying on sustainable practices. As a result, change is going to be hard, especially with regard to smartphones because of components like a touchscreen that aren’t in a typical computer. 

“The carbon footprint in terms of the manufacturing of the smartphone is at least 10x higher than laptops. For example, the amount of gold in a laptop is about 24 g per ton. The amount of gold in smartphones is about 350 g per ton. A rich gold mine is usually between 4-8 g per ton,” he said. 

The paper also suggested that by 2020 the footprint of smartphones would exceed the individual contributions of desktops, laptops, and displays. Just to put that in perspective, recent research by Carbon Trust showed that one hour of streaming video on a 50-inch television is 90 times as destructive to the environment as watching it on a smartphone. So the degree to which people have become reliant on smartphones is significant, considering emissions originating from the latter are theoretically outpacing the former. 

The Long Road to Energy Efficiency 

Belkhir believes the 2020 forecast is likely to have come true. He called Apple mobile computing’s a bellwether, with the iPhone product category outpacing all other Apple divisions. As a result, he believes it’s fair to assume it characterises the whole industry.  

Asked his opinion whether anything has improved since the paper was written, he mentioned a task force to which he contributed that had been organised by the Royal Society, the world’s oldest national scientific institution. The effort resulted in a paper, “Digital Technology and the Planet: Harnessing computing to achieve net zero,” that aims for policy change to put datacentres on a more sustainable and positive track to energy efficiency

Meanwhile, in his own paper 2040 was cited by Belkhir and co-author Ahmed Elmeligi as the point when ICT greenhouse gas emissions are projected to exceed 14% of the entire global 2016 level (up from 1-1.6% in 2007). Belkhir called the projection more preventative than predictive, expressing measured optimism. 

“Accepting that we’re going to make up 14% just from ICT essentially means that, not only are we going to be unable to keep global warming to 2 [degrees], it’s going to go to 4 [degrees] or even more and I can’t imagine that as a species we’re going to allow that to happen without any drastic action,” he said. 

He pointed to work done in academia and policy circles as well as greater awareness regarding the subject matter, since the paper was written. On top of that, he suggested there really is nothing stopping us from making a change for the better. 

“I think we have the reasons as well as all the tools to reverse that course,” he said.

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