Admit it: Somewhere in your house, old devices are lurking in a drawer, a box, a dark corner. Broken phones, weird chargers for things you can’t fully recall; we try to convince ourselves this sad array of misfit gadgetry will simply disappear if we just forget about it hard enough. How did we get here?
Our phones are the major culprit. On average, Americans get a new phone every two years. We’ll trust a 20-year-old plane to fly us across the country, and the average car on the road in the US is more than 11 years old — but a phone? Two years, and into the junk drawer of sadness it goes.
In truth, your phone’s demise isn’t the only part of its life we’d rather keep out of sight and out of mind. Candidly speaking, your phone has been around: picking up synthetic sapphire in China, lithium for a battery in South America, cobalt in Africa, plastic in the Middle East, processors in Korea, a display screen in Japan.
All that globetrotting comes with a hidden environmental cost. In fact, 80 percent of a smartphone’s climate impact happens before it ever reaches you.
According to Edward Humes, author of the book Door to Door: The Magnificent, Maddening, Mysterious World of Transportation, there’s 12,000 miles of travel just in the iPhone’s home button, and around 160,000 travel miles in a fully constructed phone. Multiply that by 2.6 billion smartphone users worldwide, and that’s a hefty chunk of greenhouse gas emissions — and a big area of opportunity for innovation.
The fact that parts and materials come from all over the world is mostly unavoidable; an easier target is reducing demand, for both new phones and raw materials. It would be a lot gentler on the planet if we didn’t swap out phones so often — so why do we?
Naturally, phone manufacturers want us all to buy the hottest new model, but for consumers, it’s more than just lust for a shiny new toy. It’s often a practical decision: After about two years, things start to go wrong. The usual suspect: the battery. Batteries have improved dramatically since the first smartphones were released, but they still lose their ability to hold charge over time — and you can’t just pop in a new one.
Batteries are the most obvious symptom of a larger problem: A smartphone is a sealed box that you can’t fix or upgrade. You can’t even open it without voiding your warranty. For some things, you can send it out for repair — but how long will you be left without a phone? The easiest fix to a broken phone or a dead battery is to simply get a new phone.
Julia Bluff of iFixit, a website that teaches people to fix almost anything themselves and advocates for consumers’ right to repair electronic devices, argues that while recycling phones is good, reuse is even better.
“Every single time you swap out a battery and you get another year or two of life, that's one less phone that has to be manufactured,” Bluff said. “The longer that we can make these electronics last, the better off we are as a society.”
If we can’t reuse, then at least we can get those old phones out of the junk drawer and recycle them. Apple is getting in on the recycling action with a 29-armed robot named LIAM. LIAM can fully take apart an iPhone in 11 seconds, allowing components and raw materials to be repurposed. One LIAM can deconstruct roughly 1.2 million iPhones per year.
Watch the video above with Julia Bluff and others researchers and entrepreneurs working toward a cleaner future for smartphones, from a company making modular phones that are built to be upgraded to new long-life batteries that can be 3D-printed into any shape.
And who knows? Maybe, a decade from now, the forgotten residents of the junk drawer of sadness could emerge, repurposed for a bright new future.
Find out more efforts to make tech more sustainable and other climate change solutions at climate.universityofcalifornia.edu.