Birth, life and death of a smartphone

written by Carlotta Werth 

Science fiction is becoming reality. In 2014, we will buy 2.5 billion mobiles, computers and tablets. And soon, there will be more technological devices than human beings on Earth.
We use them every day. Wherever we go, they are with us. But we don't even really know what they are made of, how they are produced, what happens when they die.
I decided to find out something more about the life cycle of our technological devices. And I came across some creepy truths.
The first issue arises even before factories give "birth" to electronics products. It happens all the way down in Africa.
One of the main reasons for the bloody war in Congo is profit from the mineral trade. Those minerals are used to produce our mobiles, tablets and computers. The armed groups trading the metals consistently use brutal violence to keep miners in a situation of almost slavery. Mass rape is used as a strategy to intimidate the locals. This way, they can secure themselves control of mines and strategic areas. I you want to learn more about the conflict, click here and here.
The mineral supply chain is not transparent, and companies-consequently also consumers- often have no way to understand whether the products they purchase are financing the conflicts. For this reason, the GeSi (Hp, Microsoft, Huawei, Nokia are among the members) launched the Conflict-Free Smelter Program: the aim is that of enabling ICT companies to source responsibly and get rid of blood minerals.
Afterwards, the “birth” phase takes place. This happens far east, in Chinese factories.
The processes to manufacture tech devices are complex and chemically intensive. Problem is, safety standards and environmental regulations in China are weak. Reports show how factories manufacturing electronics use chemicals that can cause nerve damage, cancer, birth defects and miscarriages. Both the labourers and the local communities are exposed to these dangers. Greenpeace found factories dumping the hazardous chemicals into local waterways, along with frequent workplace poisonings.
But even if Chinese factories operated with western standards, one issue would persist: the carbon footprint. 60% of the total CO2 tech devices produce over their whole lifespan comes from manufacturing.
Because ICT firms outsource manufacturing to independent, unknown companies, they can say they ignore how their suppliers operate.
At this point, electronics devices are ready to start their short lives. Ready to be used, to be carried in our pockets, held in our hands, laid on our ears. And in spite of this, we don't even know what's in them.
36 models belonging to 10 major companies were disassembled and analysed by 100% were found containing chemical hazards: PVC, BFR and heavy metals such as mercury, chlorine, lead, cadmium and bromine.
Surprisingly, those substances don't appear to be hazardous for users. As funny as it might be, it is exactly during their life, that our mobiles, tablets and laptops produce the least damage to the environment and our health. So, the most logical conclusion is that we should use them, those devices, as long as we can.
I know. That's not what tech companies want you to do. No matter whether it is still perfectly functioning, after just a couple of years, you only want to get rid of that embarrassing, Palaeolithic mobile phone.
So, you throw your device in the bin. It's dead. And this is when it causes the greatest environmental damage.
Most of the e-waste ends up in the landfill. Here, the toxic chemicals leach into the land, the water, and the atmosphere, contaminating the food we eat and the air we breathe.
Other e-waste is incinerated. This way PVC, BFR, and toxic heavy metals such as mercury are released into the air.
Even worse, huge amounts are illegally exported to developing countries. There, in scrap yards, small children use their hands to disassemble electronic waste, in search for valuable substances such as gold, copper, iron, silicon and nickel.
There is some hope, though. Most of what is labelled as e-waste is actually not waste. Many parts could be reused or recycled. But this has to be done in purpose-built plants under controlled conditions. Also, to make recycling easier, electronics companies should work hard to reduce the chemical hazards contained in their devices.
What firms are doing better? Greenpeace filled out a ranking: so far, the companies that acted on their commitments to eliminate PVC and BRFs are Apple, Nokia, Sony Ericsson, RIM, LGE, Samsung, Acer and Philips.
Some made promises but haven't taken action so far, while others haven't even disclosed clear plans yet. If you are interested in finding out who is misbehaving, click here.
Hope you'll think about it twice, next time you buy a new smartphone.