Environmental agency warns on smartphone ‘waste’

two smartphones
iPhone X is the 10th generation smartphone from Apple

As iPhone X is launched, groups say users must be aware of the natural destruction caused in production

As the launch of the iPhone X and iPhone 8 nudge Hurricane Irma and global warming out of the headlines, smartphone users have been warned about the environmental impact of their phones.

With up to 70kg of natural resources such as rare minerals and metals used to produce each one, French environment and energy agency Ademe and pressure group France Nature Environnement have combined to publicise the natural destruction smartphone production causes.

They ask users to prevent waste by using smartphones for longer and recycling them when no longer needed - especially as only 15% are recycled.

Saying up to 50 rare and exotic metals are used in each smartphone, Ademe and FNE highlight ecosystems damaged and land and water polluted as minerals are extracted.

In China, extraction of rare metal neodymium for phone magnets at Baotou leads to acidic water being released into watercourse as well as slurry full of heavy metals and radioactive materials.

In the Democratic Republic of Congo, extraction of tantalum for smartphone capacitors and cobalt for batteries has destabilised the country, leading to armed conflict. Worse, Unicef says that more than 40,000 children work in the mineral mines.

In Chile, Argentina and Bolivia, massive water use for lithium extraction for batteries is threatening the survival of indigenous peoples who are left with no supplies of water.

Smartphones are replaced too often – whether due to fashion or perceived obsolescence – but research in France has shown that the average user replaces phones every two years and that 88% of them are still fully usable.

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In all, 75% of the environmental damage is done in production of the screen and electronic components of the seven billion smartphones produced since the first, in 2007.

First, rare metals and minerals are mined in South America, central Africa, Australia and south-east Asia, then these are transported to Asia, the US and Europe to be turned into electronic components and then transported again to south-east Asia for manufacture before once again being transported round the world for sale.

Legally, smartphones sold in France are covered by a two-year warranty (see service-public.fr for details) against faults that were present since purchase and can mean repair, replacement or reimbursement of the cost.

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