The pocket-sized, ubiquitous mobile phone may not seem like a big carbon-dioxide emitter. But with 3 billion mobile phone users worldwide, and more than 6.7 million subscriptions in Singapore alone, that adds up to a lot of hot air.
So mobile phone makers are trying to produce more environmentally-friendly phones, from packaging them in recyclable material to cutting down on chargers and accessories.
The typical mobile phone produces 23.5 kg of carbon dioxide and equivalent greenhouse gases over a three-and-a-half-year lifetime, according to a report by phone maker Sony Ericsson.
That’s the same as driving 150km in an average family car.
Sony Ericsson’s figure includes raw-materials mining, manufacturing, transport, usage and disposal or recycling of its products.
However, that figure varies by phone make and model. And using a phone’s 3G and other data functions a lot will also use more energy and generate more emissions.
For instance, usage accounts for almost half of the Apple iPhone’s 55 kg of lifetime emissions.
What’s more, there’s no universal standard for measuring actual phone emissions yet, says environmental activist organisation Greenpeace.
So companies often use the ISO 14040 framework, a general standard for measuring impact over a product’s whole life cycle.
There are several things phone manufacturers do to try and trim a phone’s environmental impact.
Recycling a single phone could save 13 kg of carbon dioxide emissions, particularly from mining raw materials and manufacturing parts.
It takes thousands of tonnes of gold ore to get one kg of gold, for example. And making plastics for casing also consumes energy, requires oil and produces carbon dioxide.
And if each of the 3 billion phone users recycled one phone, they would save 240,000 tonnes of raw materials, said Nokia environment manager Francis Cheong.
“It doesn’t make sense to throw away phone batteries,” Mr Cheong said.
As electric cars and other rechargeable battery devices become more popular, he explained, they will need lithium for those batteries and the price of lithium will rise.
Yet recycling is one of the biggest challenges to making phones sustainable, Mr Cheong explained.
Less than 3 per cent of mobile phones are recycled, according to a Nokia survey of users in 13 countries not including Singapore.
Half of the users polled did not even know phones could be recycled.
Instead, 4 per cent are trashed in landfills, about half languish in users’ homes, a quarter are passed to friends and family, and another 16 per cent are sold for re-use.
And telcos Singtel and MobileOne say phones which are traded-in are resold to other dealers, who refurbish them and resell them locally or to other countries.
Which is better, trading in or recycling a phone?
It depends on whether the phone has reached the end of its lifespan as well as where it is sent, said Singapore Environment Council executive director Howard Shaw.
Within Singapore, he says, re-use is the better policy.
“If it still works, you’re not using the phone to the full spectrum of its life cycle,” Mr Shaw said. But if it is resold elsewhere, he noted, “Where are you sending this potential waste and how is it going to be treated?”
If the phone ends up in landfill or is incinerated at the end of its life there, the environmental costs remain high.
Of six companies polled, Nokia, Apple, Motorola and Sony Ericsson have recycling programmes here, while Samsung and HTC do not.
Another way to reduce phones’ environmental impact is by using less-polluting materials to make them.
For instance, Nokia has not used polyvinyl chloride in its products since 2006, and is phasing out brominated flame retardants.
When incinerated, these materials can turn into toxic dioxins, which have been associated with cancer and other diseases.
For cutting out pollutants and recycling phones, Nokia came out tops in a Greenpeace Greener Electronics guide.
Finally, there is simply using recycled material or less material.
Both Nokia and HTC aim to standardise their phone chargers, so customers may soon be able to buy phones without chargers and use existing equipment.
And Samsung and Sony Ericsson have phones that are made with recycled material.
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