Setting a trend for the re-use of smartphones

Whether measured as energy demand or greenhouse gas emissions, the manufacture of smartphones causes the largest environmental impacts – 60 per cent – along their life cycle. If one smartphone is used for a long period of time, the harmful effects for the climate and the environment are thus reduced. This is a key finding of a recent report conducted by Oeko-Institut. The authors also recommend that the devices, having been used for as long as possible, are made available for re-use or recycling.

Challenge of conserving resources instead of improving efficiency

Nowadays smartphones are already very efficient and only require – even in the case of intensive usage – about six kilowatt hours of electricity a year. The reason: users expect their devices to have long battery operating times. The manufacturers have therefore more or less exhausted most of the efficiency potentials in spite of the numerous functionalities.

At the same time smartphones contain a whole range of scarce resources. One of these is the metal cobalt, of which batteries for mobile devices contain a few grams; currently cobalt is largely mined in the Democratic Republic of Congo under dangerous conditions, without sufficient maintenance of health and safety standards and often by children. Valuable precious metals like silver, gold or palladium are also among the resources contained in smartphones and must be recovered after use.

Proper battery disposal

Some of these metals can for the most part be recycled with existing technologies and in compliance with European environmental laws and emission limits. The scarce metals can be used again and the harmful substances can be removed from the waste flows. A necessity for recycling: mobile phone users have to hand in their old devices at one of the specially designated collection points. There is still room for improvement here: “The majority of mobile phones and smartphones don’t land in the recycling depot,” says Andreas Manhart, an expert in sustainable resource management and electronic products at Oeko-Institut. “Instead they end up at the back of drawers or even in the household waste.”

Oeko-Institut’s report also shows that at least as important is the construction of the devices themselves. “It is particularly important to recycle batteries since they contain the critical metal cobalt. But often they are so firmly installed in the casing that they cannot be efficiently removed,” explains Manhart. “However it’s crucial for them to be recycled and for the resources contained in the devices to be recovered.” Consumers who purchase a smartphone with removable battery cells make a small contribution to resource conservation themselves.

Before handing on the smartphone to a friend or acquaintance for reuse or handing it in at a collection point, all personal data should be deleted. In the case of some models the memory card can be manually removed; with other models there are special programs for carrying this out. It should be ensured that the data is not only deleted but also immediately overwritten with random data.  

Standardised charging ports reduce environmental impacts

An additional criterion for smartphones entailing low environmental impacts is a standardised charging port. In a memorandum of understanding with the European Commission in 2009, manufacturers committed themselves to introducing a standardised power supply. As a result they would no longer be sold with every mobile telephone; instead, high-quality universal chargers could be used for all common models. In the future, households could use one charging device for all mobile telephones and smartphones.

“Unfortunately that’s still very much in the future,” says Andreas Manhart. “But from an ecological perspective it would be a real breakthrough since most of the chargers' life-time energy consumption – approx. 57 per cent – is needed for its production. It would also be very practical if one user were able to simply borrow a power supply from another user.”

Electromagnetic radiation

The legislator demands a maximum limit of 2W/kg for the so-called SAR level of the electromagnetic radiation of mobile telephones. The absorption of high-frequency electromagnetic fields is measured by the so-called specific absorption rate (SAR), which is defined as the power absorbed per mass of tissue (W/kg). The effects of electromagnetic radiation continue to be debated in research; manufacturers are, however, already obliged to specify the SAR level in the product manuals. Consumers, who – following the precautionary principle – want to avoid potential risks, should purchase products with a low SAR level.

The “PROSA – Smartphones” report was carried out within the scope of the Top 100 project on climate-relevant products. It defines the criteria for the ecological optimisation of smartphones and cost savings for consumers.

Oeko-Institut‘s report: “PROSA – Smartphones” on the development of award criteria for a climate protection-based eco-label [only in German language]


Andreas Manhart
Researcher in the Products & Material Flows Division
Oeko-Institut (Institute for Applied Ecology)
Phone: ++49 89 125900-77

Oeko-Institut is a leading independent European research and consultancy institute working for a sustainable future. Founded in 1977, the institute develops principles and strategies for ways in which the vision of sustainable development can be realised globally, nationally and locally. It has offices in three cities in Germany: Freiburg, Darmstadt and Berlin.

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