InfoShot: 10 years of smartphones, in materials

10 years of smartphones have changed the world, used a lot of materials.

The first iPhone was revealed to the world in 2007. In the decade since, an estimated 7.1 billion smartphones have been sold across the world.

But while the mobile revolution has revolutionised the world in an untold number of ways, it’s also consumed a hell of a lot of raw materials. EWaste is a growing problem in a number of countries across Asia and Africa, harming the local environment and the people tasked with recovering valuable metals. Conflict minerals continue to fund militias in Congo and other areas, often hindered by a lack of transparency within supply chains despite the Dodd Frank act.

“The current production and consumption model for most electronics remains inherently unsustainable,” a new report from Greenpeace warns, “relying on finite materials, extracted and processed using chemically intensive processes and dirty energy to make short-lived products, designed for obsolescence.”

“The smartphone is perhaps one of the best examples of human ingenuity of all time. However, the current production model is not one we would be proud to pass on to our grandchildren.”

From Smart to Senseless: The Global Impact of 10 Years of Smartphones quantifies both the total of amount of raw materials – from aluminium, copper, and gold, to rarer materials such as Gallium, Palladium, and Indium – and the total energy requirement those 7 billion phones consume across their lifecycle. In 10 years, the smartphone industry has consumed some 157,000 tonnes of aluminium, 107,000 tonnes of copper, 38,000 tonnes of cobalt, and more than 5,500 tonnes of other metals. Greenpeace estimates the total electricity demand to manufacturer these devices to be 968 terawatt-hours (TWh) - 968 000 000 000 Kilowatts and roughly equivalent to India’s yearly electrical requirements - since 2007.

“Despite tremendous innovation in the functionality of the phones themselves, product design and supply chain decisions continue to suffer from the same not-so-smart linear manufacturing model and short-term, profit-driven perspective that have plagued the IT sector for years.”

As we’ve previously reported, there’s somewhere between 40-50 billion tonnes of electronic waste generated each year, much of which isn’t properly recycled.

The report calls for manufactures to make greater efforts to recycle materials and reuse them in phones, make phones both repairable and upgradable, eliminate hazardous materials from the production process, and ensure production relies on renewable energy rather than fossil fuels.

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Also read:
InfoShot: E-waste’s black market
Infoshot: Global eWaste
The super materials out to save Moore’s Law
The wooden microchips and screens of the future
Conflict Minerals - Technology's Dark Side
DRC: Demystifying the Conflict Minerals – The 3Ts and Gold Mystery
The story behind the world’s most ethical smartphone  
Cobalt mined by children is used in smartphones and other electronics products