What’s the most environmentally friendly phone? The answer is simpler than you might think: It’s the one already in your pocket.
That’s not to say that all ways of making a cell phone are equally green. Cell phones are tied up in toxic mining, energy-intensive manufacturing, and fossil fuel-based transportation. Mining a 4.5-oz. iPhone requires 295 pounds of raw material, including both ore and water, sometimes relying on workers who are just eight years old. Manufacturing a phone takes as much energy as 34 years of using it.
Then once you’re done with a phone, it becomes e-waste. Every year, we’re making 2.8 million more US tons of toxic electronic trash, and globally, we’re recycling just 17.4% of that. When e-waste is improperly disposed of—as most of it is—it can leach heavy metals like cobalt, copper, and nickel into groundwater. From there, it accumulates in aquatic ecosystems and human bodies to truly scary levels. One study found that 82% of children living near an e-waste recycling site had dangerous levels of lead in their blood.
To manufacture a phone sustainably, companies need to take all of that into account. They also need to consider how much of the materials they use can be recovered in recycling, where the products are made, where they’re warehoused, how they’re distributed, their packaging, the energy use of their devices—the list goes on. It’s obviously complicated. So far, only Fairphone has meaningfully addressed the question of sustainability at all these levels, but unfortunately, their phones aren’t widely available outside Europe.
As a user of technology, it’s tempting to upgrade to the latest and greatest smartphone, but the best thing you can do is hold onto what you’ve already got for longer. Your device has embodied value: All of the energy that went into putting the raw materials of your phone into its shape and its location in your pocket lives in that device. The longer you keep it around, the less demand you create for all that mining, manufacturing, and transportation. That’s why Americans keeping their phones one year longer on average would be the carbon equivalent of taking 636,000 cars off the road.
So celebrate Earth Day—and help the planet every day—by keeping and fixing your stuff instead of buying new. And when you can’t fix any more, recycle.
Still need convincing? Check out this video: