I am among the more than half of the people in this country that use a smartphone. That is a great thing for all the incredible convenience and connectivity smartphones give us. But its not necessarily a great thing for our carbon footprint. Smartphones use A LOT of energy, say our friends at Grist:
The average iPhone requires more power per year than the average refrigerator. It’s like you’re walking around all day with a fridge’s worth of electricity in your pocket (but no hummus!).
To be clear, its not your iPhone sitting around or getting charged overnight that’s taking up much of that energy: most of the energy consumption comes when it’s streaming video or other data downloading that its doing with the heavenly computing clouds in the sky. However, that level of energy use is rather stunning to consider that the thing that I use to chat and spend too much time on Facebook can use more energy than the thing I use to store most of the food I eat in a year! Holy hat.
So what can we do about this unsmart aspect of our smartphones? There are some small steps that all of us can take pretty easily to preserve some battery power and reduce the amount of juice we require. I’m going to focus on iphones since I’ve got one of those, but I am sure that most of these steps have parallels in Android and other worlds. The most obvious thing to do is turn off your phone at night. Huh, that seems obvious, right?? Seven or eight hours of not downloading data or doing stuff certainly helps. Except, I sheepishly have to admit, I don’t do it! Well, starting now I will be making a concerted effort to do just that. There are also several settings that can be adjusted to help with your battery life, from the brightness you set your phone at, to how often or whether you ask it to check for mail, and many other things: this article at About did a nice job walking me through how to adjust several items on my iphone for better battery life in just a couple minutes; these are things that both preserve your battery life and put a little less weight on the info technology infrastructure out there that is using vast amounts of energy to support our smartphone habits.
What about your energy source for charging your smartphone? Like everything else you plug in, the impact depends on your energy source. Likely my friends over in eastern Puget Sound have a lower smartphone carbon footprint because their energy is coming from primarily hydroelectric sources, whereas we west-Sounders still get a lot of our energy from coal (but we don’t have to: join the voices asking Puget Sound Energy to move beyond coal here!) to power our lives. So is buying an alternative energy source, like a small solar charger for your plug-in toys, a solution? So far, I havent been able to find an easy answer that suggests the lifecycle costs of creating these additional machines, including mining the materials and manufacturing, really offsets their use (if anyone reading this has info on the lifecycle analysis for these chargers I would love to hear from you!). It’s probably hard to argue that economically you can get far ahead by spending hundreds of dollars on a solar recharger compared to the few cents you pay to plug your phone in to your house. But as far as I can tell, the jury is out on whether investing in a solar adapter is really worth it, unless you are planning to do some serious wilderness backpacking with your smartphone.
Finally, we need to collectively think very hard about what to do with our smartphones at the end of their lives. The landfill or shoddy recycling practices is NOT the answer. Containing plastics, precious metals, and other components that are worth recovering and reusing, our cellphones have no place ending their life adding to methane production and leaching of hazardous materials in a landfill. Nor should they be ending up in unregulated recycling centers in countries which provide little or no oversight, where they have the potential to do even greater harm to public health and the environment. At over a billion phones a year sold, with an average lifespan of 12 months, cellphones are fast becoming one of our leading electronic waste problems. If you want to see a powerful visual description of this level of waste generation, check out artist Chris Jordan’s amazing Cell Phones piece depicting the 426,000 cell phone retired in the US every day. Right now, we have a LONG way to go in doing the right thing with all this waste: in a NYT article a few years ago, a cellphone recycler estimated they and their colleagues were only getting back about 1% of the phones in the market. Yikes!
There are several options for sending your cellphone to a legitimate e-cycler. Many of the businesses that cell cellphones take them back and may even give you credit towards a new phone for bringing back your old. Locally, Cell Seattle buys back old phones to refurbish and recycle, and even works with other nonprofits who can collect phones to raise funds for their own organizations. Washington’s Department of Ecology E-waste site is a great resource for finding local e-waste recyclers. And nationally, EPA’s electronics recycling website has a number of resources including businesses and organizations that will accept and responsibly handle mobile phones. There is no reason we should be throwing our phones away, when many better and easier alternatives are out there to keep these materials moving through our manufacturing and reuse systems rather than contributing to pollution and emissions.