Smartphones. They’re everywhere.

As of this year, the number of smartphone users is estimated at 3.5 billion, which equals roughly half the global population. This number is set to increase to 3.8 billion by 2021, and just as the amount of smartphones continues to increase, so does our reliance on them. According to an Ofcom survey, residents of the United Kingdom check their phones on average every 12 minutes of the waking day. They are what we reach out for first when we wake up in the morning, and the last thing we put down before we go to sleep. They monitor our health, our sleep, our schedule, and in the era of COVID-19, they are our link to the outside world. When they run out of battery or we accidentally leave them behind, we feel naked and vulnerable. The amount of times I have glanced at mine whilst writing this piece is embarrassingly high. 

As dependent as we are on these devices, it’s time to acknowledge the devastating impact of this billion dollar industry on our planet.

Manufacturing a smartphone is a lengthy and complicated process which frequently involves over 60 chemical elements, often including 16 (out of the 17) rare-earth metals and precious metals like gold and platinum. These resources are not only finite but are most often obtained via open-pit mining, to the detriment of local communities around the world. 

For example, roughly 60% of cobalt production takes place in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where workers (40,000 of them children as estimated by UNICEF) mine in hazardous conditions without protection from the toxic chemicals that pollute the surrounding air and rivers. This threatens the health of both small, localised communities and entire ecosystems. Cobalt has also been reported to be traded by arms groups as a way of financing continued conflict in the area. 

Similarly, Chilean indigenous farmers fear for their survival because lithium mining is exacerbating the scarcity of water in this region. It doesn’t just stop at the excavations stage either. Despite the lack of transparency in the production line, there is more and more evidence to suggest that workers (also sometimes children) in factories where smartphones are mass-produced are underpaid and overworked. Often these workers go without adequate protection from harmful chemicals and loud noise, leading to high instances of serious health conditions such as miscarriages and cancer.

The abuse and exploitation caused by the smartphone industry seems to be endless. The more research I undertake the more harrowing stories I find of exploitation, destruction and a complete disregard for the communities impacted by this business. 

And yet, despite these blatant issues, smartphones are marketed to us as disposable items. Phone contracts constantly encourage us to upgrade to a newer model, often long before our old phones stop working. Moreover, tactics such as securing touch-screens and batteries with glue, or not using universal fasteners for internal components, prevent customers from being able to fix their own phones – forcing them to splash out on a new device. In 2018, both Apple and Samsung were fined in Italy after it emerged that certain smartphone updates deliberately slowed down devices, enticing customers to buy new phones. Our desire for the latest model, with the fastest processor and highest quality camera, helps to feed this throwaway culture and prevents change from taking place. It is unsurprising then, that in the EU alone 10 million smartphones are disposed of or replaced each month. 

What do we do with our old phones once we’ve upgraded them? Mostly, nothing. According to a BBC report, there are around 40 million gadgets lying unused around UK households. Sometimes we throw them away, allowing them to end up in landfill sites and leak poisonous chemicals into the soil as they decay. Reports suggest that in the USA less than 20% of smartphones are recycled, and in recent years recycling companies themselves have come under scrutiny, as e-waste put into recycling bins has ended up in developing countries, again contaminating the atmosphere with toxic elements.

Smartphones have allowed a precious few to become some of the wealthiest people in the world. Yet the industry’s business model is unsustainable, and involves the exploitation of workers (many of which are children) alongside the destruction of fragile ecosystems and communities.

There is perhaps some hope that the industry will change. Companies such as Fairphone aim to offer a more sustainable alternative to typical smartphones, by designing easily-repairable, durable devices and endeavouring to source materials from areas free of conflict. Although realistically it’s impossible to manufacture an entirely ethical smartphone, it’s definitely a step in the right direction. There are also more places than ever to recycle your mobile phone, and more transparency regarding what happens to it. Non-profits such as Rainforest Connection aim to reduce deforestation by using smartphones as a means of detecting illegal logging activity. More and more consumers are opting for second-hand phones, which helps to cut down on waste. It seems a hopeful start, but there is still a long way to go.

It’s time to reevaluate our perception of smartphones as disposable items and prioritise the welfare of local communities and the environment. Corporations cannot continue to be allowed to profit at their expense. This change needs to happen sooner rather than later, because soon it could be too late.