10 billion smartphones

I love my smartphone. It’s indispensable to the life I want to lead. I grew up on a small farm, communing with the silence and commuting with the cows as we walked slowly from the upper fields to the milking shed. It sucked. I hated it. I remember the first time I saw the Web in the early 1990s. It was a magical experience. I still think the Web, for all its drawbacks, is an extraordinarily wonderful place. Smartphones are a modern wonder. I couldn’t and wouldn’t live without one.

The first smartphone was produced in 2007. By 2019, about 10 billion had been made. Every year, about 1.5 billion new smartphones are sold. Manufacturing a smartphone can produce as much as 90% of the pollution it creates during its lifetime, according to a study from McMaster University in Canada. That means that you should try and hold on to your phone for at least five years, because by far the biggest environmental cost is in its manufacture. However, on average, people tend to hold on to their phones for only two to three years. 

“Always at the cutting edge,” an ad for Deutsche Telekom stated. It promised that “customers will never miss another innovation,” because of a new plan that allowed a change of phone every twelve months. With fabulous deals like this, it’s not surprising that by 2014 there were more than 100 million phones lying unused and unrecycled in the drawers of German households, which is a drop in the bucket of the estimated old and unused smartphones out there. Perfectly good phones that had a massive pollution cost to produce are lying around unused and unrecycled. Into these smartphones we demanded from the Earth 100 units of energy and resources. After we’ve used up the equivalent of 20 units, we discard the thing, leaving 80 units of unused energy, which becomes waste. 

I’m as guilty as anyone. I’ve never changed a phone because it was broken or worn. I was on a plan and when the plan said I could have a new phone, I jumped and bought my new phone like the good little consumer I’d been trained to be. It was a treat, a sugar rush. If we could only reduce the waste, we’d do so much good in the world, and we’d live less stressful, more fulfilled lives.

The energy that is consumed by a smartphone when it is running is relatively little. However, a key reason that smartphones don’t consume so much running energy themselves is because they get data centers to do a lot of the energy-intensive heavy-lifting processing for them. What this means, of course, is that data center and network growth must go hand-in-hand with smartphone growth, as the data center and the network become the workhorse for the smartphone. 

The energy required to transfer data can vary substantially. The more the data travels over wires, the less energy is required. Wi-Fi is reasonably energy efficient. However, if data is transferred over a cellular network, energy use soars. Wireless traffic through 3G uses 15 times more energy than Wi-Fi, while 4G consumes 23 times more. 

And then there’s 5G, which is so fast, “you could download the entire discography of Friends AND ceremoniously drag-and-drop it in your trash bin in around the same time it would normally take to load a webpage today,” web designer Scott Jehl explains. Which nicely summarizes what cheap speed does to us. When you can download anything you might possibly want in an instant, why not download everything? When the big, fat bandwidth pipe gets even bigger, we can waste to our heart’s content. There’ll be lots of hidden energy costs, of course. It’s estimated that 5G could increase total network energy consumption by more than 150%. 

At the heart of digital is a culture and mindset of waste. We have been trained not to care, to go with the flow, not to question the convenience. We must think more about energy conservation. We can’t save the world if we don’t conserve its energy. Always ensure you’re using the most energy-efficient connection possible. Go to the extra bit of effort to regularly check your phone settings. You might end up saving yourself some money and you’ll definitely be saving the Earth some energy. 

60 elements

A typical smartphone will contain up to 60 materials and elements, including tin, iron, plastic, lithium, silicon, copper, nickel, alumina, silica, potassium, graphite, manganese, aluminum, tantalum, gold, silver, lead, magnesium, bromine. Producing these materials results in lots of solid and liquid waste. This waste builds up onsite in enormous dumps, sometimes several square kilometers in area. Often, these materials are mined in countries that have poor or nonexistent safety standards. 

The Brumadinho dam disaster occurred in 2019 in Minas Gerais, Brazil. As the dam collapsed, the poor miners were having their meager lunch in the canteen. 250 of them were suffocated and smashed to smithereens by a tsunami-like poisonous mudflow. It seems that at the end of the logistics chain of so many of our “modern” luxuries lies a world of poor people toiling to survive. Brumadinho was by no means the first such waste dam accident and it won’t be the last. “In Brazil and Minas, it is the ore above everything and everyone,” explained Andréa Zhouri, of the Federal University of Minas Gerais. 

Gold is used in smartphones primarily to make connectors and wires, and tin is used in the construction of the screens and in the soldering of electronics. Mining gold is a hugely wasteful process. (But not quite as wasteful as mining Bitcoin, as we’ll see later.) To get enough gold for a typical ring you need to mine about 20 tons of rock and soil. Sulfuric acid, mercury and cyanide are part of the toxic sludge gold mining creates. Elemental mercury is roused by the mining process and rises, polluting the air. From Peru to Indonesia, from the Amazon to Ghana, gold mining leaves its ugly mark. Monazite, pyrochlore and xenotime are typical by-products of tin mining. They are radioactive. Tin mining is destroying rainforests and coral reefs. Planting more trees is great but we can also save the rainforests by holding on to our digital products as long as possible. Save the rainforests. Don’t upgrade.

Out of the 17 rare earth metals, 16 can be found in one smartphone or another. Your phone would not be able to vibrate without neodymium and dysprosium, while terbium and dysprosium help produce those vibrant colors on the screen. Sometimes referred to as “technology metals,” they are usually found in very small concentrations in the Earth. To produce one ton of a rare earth metal will typically create 2,000 tons of waste. These metals are also often found alongside radioactive materials, and the process of mining them requires carcinogenic toxins such as sulfates, ammonia and hydrochloric acid. 

Who mines all this stuff that goes into our phones? Do they get treated the same way as the phone designers in California or Seoul? Do they have beanbags and ping pong tables and free lunches and ironic art on the walls of their canteens? No. At best they get minimum wages for long, arduous hours doing work that is hazardous and often life threatening. Child and slave labor are not unknown and some of the mining happens in conflict zones. 

In 2019, Apple, Google, Microsoft, Dell, and Tesla were sued over their alleged reliance on cobalt mined by children. (Cobalt is a key raw material in making lithium batteries.) The poor are hidden away by the marketing slogans and cool branding. They do the dirty and dangerous work of the digital economy, so that we can throw away that two-year-old still-working phone and get the latest, must-have new one. 

It doesn’t have to be that way. We do have a choice. We can hang on to our phones for much longer. We can demand that the phone manufacturers make phones that can be easily repaired and recycled. We can demand that their constant software updates do not degrade the phone. We can stand up for those at the bottom of the digital logistics food chain who currently have no voice and no choice. It’s not an impossible dream that all the workers that make our digital technology should be treated fairly.

In the meantime, there’s lots of little practical things we can do to reduce waste. Basically, the less activity that’s happening on our phones the better. Minimize notifications, disable location services, and even use airplane mode for a period every day if possible. Remove unused apps. Think long and hard before downloading a new app. Keep battery levels above 50%; short charges tend to be better for the life of your battery than long ones. Dim the screen as much as possible. Use dark mode (it can save up to 30% in battery life).

Two billion computers

“In 2019, there were over 2 billion computers in the world, including servers, desktops, and laptops,” according to Supply Chain Management Outsource. A desktop uses about four to six times more power when being used than a laptop. The reason is that laptops need to operate on battery power and thus have to be more efficiently designed. Pollution flourishes where there are no constraints. The desktop is not constrained by a battery and thus the designers feel they don’t need to think so much about energy efficiency. 

In sleep mode, a computer or laptop is typically using about 10% of the energy it requires when it is up-and-running. Technology writer Whitson Gordon calculated that with his computer on eight hours every weekday, it was costing him about $160 per year. PC Gamer magazine estimated that running a gaming machine for two hours a day can cost from $29 to $77 a year, depending on the spec.

In the US, keeping computers running “takes the equivalent of 30 large power plants while emitting 65 million metric tons of carbon dioxide pollution,” according to Pierre Delforge, writing for the Natural Resources Defense Council in 2016. We’d need to plant 6.5 billion trees to deal with that sort of pollution.

It is estimated that a typical computer spends anywhere from 50% to 77% of its time idle, doing nothing useful, creating pollution. If 30% of the time computers were turned off instead of being let sit idle, US consumers could save $3 billion a year. Delforge estimated that this would save 20 million metric tons of pollution. Instead of having to plant two billion trees to compensate for this pollution, if we turned our computers off when we’re not using them, that would make a huge difference. It would have zero impact on computer performance because… we’re not using them. 

Here’s some things to do:

  • Buy a laptop instead of a desktop and get the one with the best energy ratings.
  • Don’t buy large screens.
  • Close everything you’re not actively using. Close unused windows, browser tabs and programs.
  • Do not use screen savers.
  • Adjust settings so that your monitor goes off after five minutes of not being used and the computer goes to sleep after 15 minutes of not being used.
  • Turn your computer off at night or whenever you will not be using it for more than one hour.

Smartphone and computer addiction

Keep a watch for signs of addiction to your smartphone or computer. From the ground up, services like Facebook are designed to entrap and ensnare, to suck up as much of your attention as possible and then sell it on to advertisers. “These interfaces are intentionally designed to manipulate users,” Georgetown Law School associate dean Paul Ohm stated in 2019. 

In intimate detail, they know your behavioral and cognitive biases. It takes a truly conscious mind to firstly be aware that in digital you are often surrounded by dark patterns and deceptive design, and then to resist and develop immunity to these subtle and not-so-subtle nudges. It is absolutely possible to get control of your digital life. It takes time and effort, which you have more of than you might imagine. On your digital journey, think and behave like you are walking through streets full of pickpockets. 

Do you get agitated when your phone isn’t around or when the network is down? When you’re talking to someone do you feel the compulsion to check your phone? Do you more easily get bored with face-to-face interactions and physical activities? Are you on your phone or computer when you should be sleeping? Are you constantly checking your phone or computer even when you know there’s no real point? Do you pick up your phone for some reason then find yourself pointlessly browsing? 

Do you turn to digital when you feel anxious or alone? Are you constantly texting while walking? When you see others using their phones do you have the compulsion to take out your phone to show that you’re a busy, connected person too? Can you not go to the bathroom without using your phone? Do you find yourself on your phone or computer so as to avoid doing other stuff you know you need to do? When you know it would be much better to talk to someone or meet them face-to-face, do you still text or email? 

To get a better balance in life, start by finding out how much time you’re currently spending on your phone or computer. Set goals and targets. Rewards and punishments. But here’s the thing. Don’t set unattainable goals. Many of us set ourselves goals that we are not able to achieve, certainly not immediately. It seems that we are subconsciously setting ourselves up to fail. Set targets that are easy to achieve and then slowly expand these. Try to have a clear purpose before you pick up your phone or use your computer, and only use them for that purpose. Have places where you won’t use the phone, such as at the dinner table. Do some phone fasting. You can do it. It’s good for you.

Until quite recently, human societies had lots of hungry times, of forced fasting, of famines. The ability to fast became part of our DNA. Our bodies learned to use fasting in a beneficial way. Throughout history, in multiple cultures and religions, fasting has been recognized as a way to clean the body and the mind, to make us sharper and more focused. In the fifth century BC, the Greek physician Hippocrates recommended fasting to patients, and to this day fasting is recommended before many medical procedures. Fasting is a core part of Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism. Try some fasting from digital. It’ll be good for you and chances are, after the withdrawal symptoms, you’ll feel sharper and happier.

We must master digital or it will master us. We must shape digital or it will shape us. We must control digital or it will control us.

Key actions

Hold onto your digital device for as long as possible. Don’t upgrade. Shut stuff off. Fast.

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