July 16, 2024


Unlimited Technology

Why smartphones aren’t eco-friendly; how Big Tech is at odds with climate goals

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The iPhone 13 series was released on September 14, with four phones in the new line-up available for purchase from September 24. Reports suggest that pre-orders, which began on September 17, in India are expected to beat past records.

While iPhone lovers cannot wait to unbox the latest phone, many may not be aware of the environmental impact that the phone has through its life cycle.

Manufacturing a smartphone is estimated to be responsible for over 85-95 percent of the device’s annual carbon footprint. Around 55 kg of carbon dioxide is emitted during the manufacturing of a smartphone; and high-end smartphones like iPhone and flagship smartphones emit much more.

The largest chunk of carbon emissions are from the energy and water-intensive process of semiconductor manufacturing. Companies like Intel and TSMC use intense amounts of energy to produce the integrated systems-on-a-chip (SoCs) components that power and run your devices.

With smartphones veering into an ‘essential’ for modern life and amenities, not buying them is not a viable option. But unlike earlier decades, where big-ticket purchases would last for years, many electronic goods like smartphones are replaced every few years.

The iPhone line-up gets a revamp almost every year, with Apple’s phone series having seen 13 versions since its debut in 2007. While many of the changes were iconic and brought forth new technologies to consumers, others have been lacklustre with minor details and slightly different designs.

This is part of Apple’s, and Big Tech’s concerted effort to make consumers buy more. New products, even if they are essentially the same machine under the hood, entice and attract customers, especially with marketing-based around FOMO (fear of missing out) and being part of a group.

Big Tech’s notorious policy of ‘planned obsolescence,’ where products are manufactured to fail and then require replacing, also plays a part. Companies make their products obsolete by introducing frequent changes in design, terminating the supply of spare parts, and using non-durable materials, among some measures.

Apple, for its part, would force new iOS updates on older devices that would make them incredibly slow. Apple’s repair and replacement policy also contributes to sales of new devices through its entire line of products, since repairs would often cost nearly as much as a new device. The company has already been subject to several lawsuits for its policies.

Apple is not the only company that uses planned obsolescence. More device sales mean greater profit for these companies. But with scientific studies estimating that “buying one new phone takes as much energy as recharging and operating a smartphone for an entire decade,” it is not hard to see why such policies are incredibly harmful to the environment.

The older phones that are replaced are often destined to be relegated to e-waste. Smartphones are often built without much thought for recycling and reusing components, so most of them head for landfills.

Smartphones and other electronic items are made harder to recycle due to manufacturers not sharing schematics and having various toxic compounds in their products. Environment activists have called on large electronic manufacturers for years to make their products easier to repair and recycle, but without much of an impact.

Despite e-waste containing precious elements like gold, copper, lithium, tungsten, manganese and more, only 20 percent of the global e-waste of 53.6 million tonnes is recovered.

Though companies like Apple, Samsung, Facebook and Google have pledged to do their part in reaching net-zero emissions, product cycle emissions and major policy changes are needed before they can truly reach net-zero without it being a blatant act of greenwashing.

Also read: Centerstaging ESG for net-zero emissions energy

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