Smartphones help us or destroy us

Cell phone production - environmental impacts and working conditions

Sustainably manufactured products or fair trade food can be found in almost every supermarket. Many are easy to recognize and have product labels such as the organic seal for food or the Blue Angel for recycled paper.

The Blue Angel already has a category "environmentally friendly mobile phones", but unfortunately there are currently no providers (as of January 2020). In order to reduce the effects of cell phone production and use on the environment, it would be desirable for manufacturers to orient themselves towards the criteria of the Blue Angel in the future.

Individual companies are already trying to do this. Fairphone and Shift devices are often mentioned in the media. Manufacturers aim to offer products that are as environmentally friendly, socially acceptable and resource-efficient as possible. They expressly differentiate themselves from the dominant manufacturers. Fairphone is a social enterprise from the Netherlands that emerged from an awareness campaign about so-called conflict materials. Shift describes itself as a so-called social business that is oriented towards the common good.

How "unfair" can a smartphone be?

The smartphone is a constant companion for many people. According to industry information, eight out of ten Germans use a smartphone. In 2019 alone, over 22 million devices were sold. There are also other mobile devices. Six out of ten people in Germany use tablets.

Young people in particular often state that they can hardly imagine life without a mobile phone. Most already have their own device as a child: three out of four ten-year-olds have their own smartphone. "From the age of ten, the smartphone is a must," says the industry association Bitkom.

The product generations change very quickly. Technical development is progressing very quickly, and many users - especially young people - often only keep their smartphones for a year or two before deciding on another, mostly technically more sophisticated model.

But the manufacture of smartphones has far-reaching effects on people and nature. Valuable raw materials are required for the products. These include metals such as iron, copper, aluminum, nickel and zinc as well as other substances such as indium, tantalum and gold.

The extraction of metals is often associated with very high effects on the environment. Gold, for example, causes many times more greenhouse gas emissions than steel, which essentially contains iron.

In addition, some of the raw materials are extracted under problematic circumstances.

In order to get to metals, habitats are often destroyed. In some mining regions, for example, primeval forests are cleared or mountains are blown up in order to create open-cast mines. Toxic substances are also used to loosen precious metals from the rock. These solvents can get into the water. For example, on the Indonesian islands of Bangka and Belitung, where tin is mined, forest and water areas have been destroyed, threatening animal and plant species.

In addition, a lot of energy is required for the operation of industrial plants and the transport of the individual raw materials to the production facility, which CO2 releases and therefore damages the climate.

Last but not least, IT production causes social problems. When the many different raw materials are extracted and the equipment is produced, there is often a lack of labor law standards.

Gold, tantalum and tin are often referred to as conflict minerals. In some problem regions such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the extraction of raw materials sometimes takes place under inhumane and dangerous conditions.

Conditions are also poor in many of the factories where the devices are assembled. China Labor Watch (CLW), a non-governmental organization that campaigns for the rights of workers in China, speaks of sometimes inhumane working conditions. Over the past few years, CLW has researched a number of Chinese companies that supply finished electrical appliances to multinational corporations, including some smartphone manufacturers. It was found that many workers only received a low wage, which they could only live on by working overtime, and had no employment contract.

What Can Go Wrong With Cell Phone Disposal?

Valuable resources are required to manufacture smartphones, but the devices are not used for that long. They are often replaced early on, even though they are still functional. The reason is that many consumers want more up-to-date devices.

The continued use of the replaced equipment is then of crucial importance in how this affects the environment. There are already initiatives and platforms for reusing used equipment. They should be used to reduce the impact on the environment.

Nevertheless, smartphones can also become garbage at an early stage. Individual parts such as batteries or displays can sometimes not be exchanged or can only be exchanged at great expense. Many consumers therefore decide to buy a new device straight away.

At the same time, some old devices are not properly disposed of. If disposed of properly, plastics, glass and metals, some of which are valuable, could be brought back into the material cycle. Copper in particular is a valuable metal that can be almost completely recovered when it is recycled. Detailed information on the recycling of electrical appliances is available from the topic of electrical appliances: waste or gold mines.

On the other hand, if electrical devices are not disposed of properly, this can endanger the environment and people, for example in the case of illegal collections by scrap dealers. In this way, harmful substances such as lead can escape and get into the soil or groundwater. In addition, valuable raw materials may not be recovered and fed back into the material cycle. As a result, raw materials have to be recovered in some cases under the problematic conditions described.

The proper disposal of old electrical appliances is therefore of particular importance. The devices can be handed in free of charge at the local recycling center. Large electrical retailers are also obliged to take back small electrical appliances free of charge. This also applies if a new device is not purchased at the same time. Only in the case of large devices can the return be linked to the purchase of a new device. This means that consumers have an extensive network of return points at their disposal, where old devices can be returned free of charge and thus disposed of properly.

A fairer smartphone?

Obviously, an alternative to the current production conditions is difficult to implement. According to the manufacturer, the Fairphone itself is not one hundred percent fair. However, the company emphasizes that it puts ethical values ​​before technological achievement. It therefore tries, in cooperation with suppliers, to gradually increase the proportion of fair materials and to make the entire manufacturing process sustainable.

In any case, Fairphone has sparked the public discussion about manufacturing conditions. Other manufacturers also express their responsibility. For example, the iPhone manufacturer Apple announced in spring 2014 that it would no longer purchase tantalum from mines in the Congo that are controlled by armed rebels.

That makes smartphones fairer

While there is not yet a completely fair smartphone, it is still clear which features should apply to such a device.

It must be taken into account that the devices have a complex, global supply chain. The raw materials and components contained have a long way to go before a device gets into the hands of consumers.

The service life plays a major role in the evaluation of complex products. In order to conserve resources, a smartphone should be as durable as possible. Therefore, it should have a modular structure to allow easier repairs. This includes, for example, batteries and displays that can be exchanged.

Fair working conditions should be guaranteed for all people involved in production. The International Labor Organization (ILO), for example, has formulated minimum standards. There are companies in the often criticized China that adhere to them.

No raw materials should be used that are extracted under problematic conditions.

Manufacturers should already consider recycling. In this way, smartphones that still contain valuable minerals and metals are better recycled and the harmful substances they contain are properly disposed of.

One of the Blue Angel criteria for cell phones is that pollutants in the plastics used are minimized and that the electromagnetic radiation meets strict limit values.

Last but not least, compliance with the standards mentioned must be verifiable. That would guarantee the Blue Angel product seal, for example. The Fairphone company tries to meet this requirement by making information about the financing and origin of the components of its product available online.

What can consumers do?

Consumers also have the option of influencing the supply chain of smartphones and other IT devices by consciously choosing devices that meet certain requirements. The Federal Environment Agency has put together tips for consumers.

In addition, consumers can find out about the production conditions for devices. Greenpeace, for example, last published a "Guide to Greener Electronics" (in English) in 2017, in which companies are classified according to how environmentally friendly their production is.

In addition, through their usage and purchasing behavior, consumers can do something to limit the negative consequences of production. This includes asking yourself the question of whether a new device really has to be. If the old cell phone is still working, it is worth considering carefully whether it will still serve its purpose for a few months or years. And devices that are no longer used may still be useful for other people and can be passed on to friends or relatives. There are now initiatives and platforms that buy, repair and resell used devices to third parties, thereby giving the devices a new life. In order to keep any requests for a new device in order, it can be helpful to make a list of the aspects that are particularly important. This helps in weighing which functions can be dispensed with and which cannot.

In order to protect your own smartphone from damage and to prevent it from being replaced at an early stage, it is worth sticking a protective film on the display or putting it in a case when you carry it in your pocket. To ensure that the battery lasts for a long time, the manufacturer's instructions for correct charging should be observed.

If the device is broken or faulty, it should first be checked whether it can be repaired after all, for example by asking in the shop or at a corresponding repair shop. The Federal Environment Agency generally recommends using used equipment. In the case of a smartphone, anyone who is afraid of acquiring a faulty device without a guarantee can first ask relatives and friends whether they have a smartphone that they currently do not need. In some cases, however, platforms such as rebuy also offer a guarantee on the used devices sold there.

In addition, the old cell phone should be given to a collection point or to the manufacturer so that the scarce raw materials can be returned to the material cycle. For this purpose, consumers have access to the aforementioned network of collection points run by municipalities and electrical retailers, where they can hand in disused smartphones free of charge. This ensures that these are properly disposed of and that as many raw materials as possible can be recovered and pollutants can be discharged.

Related Links

Federal Environment Agency: smartphone consumer tips

Federal Environment Agency: waste electrical equipment

Drop it like e-waste: Campaign to dispose of old cell phones

My Green Choice: Fair Trade Cell Phone / Fair Smartphone: Information & Model Overview

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