World Earth Day - why your little cell phone is having a major impact

Posted by Liz Cook on

“The Earth will not continue to offer its harvest, except with faithful stewardship. We cannot say we love the land and then take steps to destroy it for use by future generations.”
—John Paul II


In 1984 I turned 8 years old and my grandfather gave me a bike. He made that bike himself from parts he found at the rubbish dump. It was red with a white banana seat, and a pink heart painted on the front. I loved that bike. And you could find things like that in the dump in the ‘80s.


I have vivid memories of that era, of crawling over acres of garbage with my brothers, looking for treasures among the discarded heaps. And we found them, too – doll’s prams, books, furniture, records…you could pretty much find anything at the tip back then (including Hepatitis, now that I think of it), ready to be covered with landfill, never to be thought of again.

We have come a long way in the 35 years since then. The rubbish dump is now organised and categorised, and even clean, and we are considerate about what we send to landfill, what we recycle, and perhaps what we buy in the first place. I think. I hope.

Today is World Earth Day, and there will be lots of talk about eco-hacks, reducing emissions, eating locally etc etc. And they are all good and important things.

But there is something we all do an average of 3 hours and 35 minutes each and every day which is almost never discussed: smartphones.

Your phone is a serious environmental disaster, with around 968 TWh of power used in the production of smartphones since their commercial release (the same amount of power used in one year by the entire 1.3 billion population of India).

In addition, our devices contribute significantly to the 50 million metric tonnes of e-waste annually. Worldwide, 152 million mobile phones are thrown away each year, containing around US$240 million of gold and sliver. That. Is. Staggering. Especially when you realise the metals and minerals in these phones can be recovered and recycled.

Once discarded into landfill, smartphones and other electronics leach harmful substances into the soil and contaminate groundwater, which has serious health implications for both human and plant life.

But environmental issues are not the only problem here.

Workers in manufacturing countries are experiencing slave-like, toxic conditions as they mine for minerals or work in production plants to ensure unlimited supply of these technologies to those who hold the money and the power.

In the Democratic republic of Congo (DRC), a country blighted by conflict minerals, over fifty percent of mineral mines are controlled by armed groups or violent, independent militias, and local mining populations (including approximately 35,000 children as young as six) work under appalling conditions, with brutality and sexual abuse being commonplace, and toxic dust being an everyday reality.

Did you know it takes around half a tonne of soil to produce the minerals required for just one smartphone? An entire half a ute-load of soil just to give me my brand new smartphone. 

In being good environmental stewards, we must also think about the greater impact our consumption has. There is almost no way to separate environmental issues from humanitarian concerns. People are suffering for our consumption. Even for our waste. 

But it's almost impossible to run a modern business, or even just a modern life, without a mobile phone that can keep up with the pace, so responding to this information is a challenge. My personal response has been to keep my cell phone (and all of my other electronic goods, for that matter) until it is close to death before upgrading. I figure that will be 4-5 years, instead of upgrading every time my contract runs out. And when I upgrade, I will buy a refurbished phone, not new. 

As the saying goes, when you know better, you do better; how will you respond now that you know?

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