The World
Jul 2017

Looking back just 10 years ago, we all used cameras to take photos and paper maps to find our way around new places. Back then the mobile games for killing time were limited to ‘Tetris’ or ‘Snake’. When we left our mobile phones at home, the worst that could happen was we were unable to make phone calls or receive text messages on the move. Today, however, if we find ourselves in the same situation, we will not only feel helpless when we are unable to call others, but will also be at a loss for means of navigating with GPS, booking a meal, hailing a cab, or sharing on social media. 



Smartphones are such a ‘smart’ portable gadget that they take care of almost all our daily needs in this day and age. Tasks that used to be handled by real people are now mostly handed over to this IT ‘butler’. Interpersonal relationships established through face-to-face communication are increasingly replaced by incessant person-to-device interactions.



Behind 10 Years of Success 

Do you remember how many smartphones you have had in the last decade? How many more do you intend to own? So far a total of over 7.1 billion smartphones have been made worldwide. If every one of them was still operational, there would be roughly enough phones for every person in the world.

A survey by Greenpeace reveals that the average life cycle of a smartphone is under 22 months. It can thus be estimated that the average person uses at least 29 smartphones in their lifetime. The percentage of smartphone ownership among those aged between 18 and 35 has reached 62% on a global scale and is even as high as 90% in such developed countries as Germany and South Korea. Each person in Hong Kong owns 4.25 smartphones on average, even more than those living in South Korea, mainland China, the US, and Germany. 


The Price to Pay for Being Smart 

Over 60 different elements are commonly used to produce a smartphone. The mining and processing of natural resources for manufacturing the 7.1 billion devices have made a significant impact on both the environment and humans.

80% of the coltan used to produce smartphones is from Democratic Republic of the Congo. The primitive and hazardous mining process brings huge profits to local small enterprises but the invasive exploitation plays havoc with vast swathes of land. The manufacturing process also entails high energy consumption. Since 2007, more than 968 TWh (terawatt hours) have been used annually to manufacture smartphones, which nearly equals one year’s power supply for India.

Workers in smartphone factories are inadvertently exposed to dangerous chemicals that are harmful to their health. According to a study conducted by Labour Action China in 2014, the use of chemicals such as benzene and n-hexane in the manufacturing process by iPhone supplier Foxconn has led to at least 13 workers being diagnosed with leukemia. Widely used by electronic manufacturers in mainland China, these two chemicals have since 2010 caused thousands of workers to suffer from leukemia due to benzene poisoning.


Smartphone Recycling: An Uphill Task 

Of all the discarded old mobile phones, less than 16% is properly recycled, with the rest ending up in landfills and incinerators. Non-biodegradable heavy metals cause pollution on land while harmful gases released during the smelting process pose a health threat to the local people.

Even for licensed e-waste recyclers, the complicated design of smartphones makes recycling a formidable challenge. The fact is, even after undergoing a smelting process, the various non-degradable materials and elements in the miniature components of smartphones will remain unrecyclable.



The Way Out: Sustainable Manufacturing 

Fairphone, a Dutch non-profit tech startup, aims to improve working conditions in smartphone sweatshops and minimize environmental hazards through control of raw materials and processing during production. The company makes every effort to trace the origin of each bag of ores used in manufacturing and ensures fair pay for workers.

All Fairphone gadgets come with removable batteries that are easily replaceable, and spare parts are all available for purchase online. Users no longer need to buy a new phone just to save the trouble of repair. The company also offers thorough recycling service for its used devices. 



The ‘production→usage→disposal’ manufacturing model has placed an unbearable strain on earth’s resources. The elimination of toxic chemicals and reuse of components not only protect the health and safety of consumers and workers alike, but also put an end to the mining of primary deposits and make recycling safer. Such a ‘reuse of raw materials’ sustainable manufacturing model will no doubt be the key to securing the long-term development of consumer electronics and the manufacturing industry as a whole.




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