Brussels should answer the call for sustainable smartphones

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV.COM Ltd.

Old phones, which pile up as consumers are tempted into upgrading their old handsets, contain a veritable treasure trove of usable parts. [Shutterstock]

The European Commission should include smartphones in upcoming legislation investigating how the design of certain products affects the environment, writes Carsten Wachholz

Carsten Wachholz is part of the Coolproducts campaign, a coalition of European NGOs working to ensure that product design and energy labelling truly benefit European consumers and the environment.

The frustrations of a faulty smartphone are never far away. Cracked screens, weak batteries and sluggish software updates are just some of the irritations awaiting the tech-savvy individual of today. The issues affect a huge number of handsets every day.

Yet the consequences of each fault potentially confining another mobile phone to a desk drawer or dustbin go beyond not tweeting pictures of a cat with a birthday hat on, but have profound effects on the beautiful landscapes we share with friends on social media.

Over the last ten years, the insatiable hunger for natural resources caused by an accelerating cycle of replacing older phones with newer handsets has literally drilled massive holes into the environment.

From the graphite in the battery to the silicon of the processor, there are dozens of metals, minerals and compounds inside every phone. But they all have to be extracted from the Earth and cause severe ecological damage as mining struggles to keep up with ever increasing demand.

Digging up ore displaces huge piles of earth and rock, which when converted into metal generates immense quantities of highly toxic waste. Creating just one gold ring produces twenty tons of toxic and non-toxic by-products, and gold is a key component of modern mobile phones.

But there is an alternative. Rather than obsolete technology, scrapped cell phones are a treasure trove of reusable and recyclable parts which could seriously benefit the European economy.

Every ton of discarded handsets contains on average 128kg of copper, 347g of gold, almost 4kg of silver and over 32kg of other minerals that can be profitably recovered. A study by the UK environmental group Green Alliance suggests there could be as many as 125 million cell phones lying dormant in the UK alone – along with all the precious resources they contain.

This, coupled with the economic potential of selling second-hand devices – a global market worth almost €17 billion in 2016 – makes a clear business case for making phones easier to reuse, repair and recycle.

The environmental gains are also striking. Keeping a smartphone running for one additional year cuts its carbon footprint by a third, and diverts money away from mines responsible for horrific ecological destruction.

But despite these benefits, fixing, upgrading and recycling handsets is frequently sabotaged by some smartphone manufacturers through obstructive handset designs – such as installing non-removable batteries, limiting access to spare parts or gluing and welding handset components together.

So how can the European Union help to curb the strain that producing cell phones exerts on the environment?

The EU Ecodesign Directive offers a great opportunity to promote a more circular economy. It aims to reduce the environmental impacts of energy-using products sold within the EU by setting design requirements on energy efficiency, durability, reparability and recyclability.

The upcoming Working Plan contained within this legislation – due to be released this year by the European Commission – is expected to identify products that can be assessed to see whether the environmental impact of their manufacturing and use can be lowered.

The Commission should seize this chance to examine what can be done to improve the lifetimes of our smartphones, instead of allowing them to burn through incredible amounts of resources.

Making phones simpler to disassemble should be one line of inquiry, as it may accelerate the push for handsets to be upgraded and repaired easily. Consumers would also benefit financially from requirements for cell phones to last longer – allowing batteries to be changed, ensuring screens can withstand shocks and enforcing rules to guarantee software updates are compatible with handsets for a certain number of years.

Looking to increase smartphone lifetimes could pay particular dividends. Research shows there is no technological reason why current handsets cannot be guaranteed to work for at least four years or longer, which would halve their environmental impacts as fewer new phones would be needed.

Staying in touch should not force people to leave a trail of broken or outdated phones in their wake. Regulatory action from the European Commission guaranteeing that smartphones can call, text and catch Pokémon for four years or longer will not only keep plenty of users happy – but ensure every handset is designed to spur new business opportunities without trashing the planet and its resources.

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