Smartphones and environmental protection: is it also sustainable?

Smartphones and environmental protection: is it also sustainable?

More than 20 million new smartphones are bought in Germany every year. A huge problem for the environment. But is life without a cell phone the only alternative? Can smartphones and sustainability be reconciled? Here you will find ideas, solutions and suggestions for reflection.

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I was the first in the family to own a smartphone: My HTC Tattoo was tiny, quite thick with fat display edges – and today it's lying around in the corner. It was to be followed by a Galaxy S2, Galaxy S5, and Galaxy S7 (with a quick jaunt to the Huawei P9, which unfortunately fell down Yosemite Falls and had to be replaced at short notice). That's five smartphones in less than ten years. On the one hand, this is nothing out of the ordinary, but on the other hand, it is quite devastating for the environment.

My smartphones not only gobbled up resources in production, but also in use. And they weren't properly recycled either. Only one device was allowed to continue a second life with another family member. So I should also hold my own nose when I explain what all this means for the environment. So much in advance: The research for this article was sometimes quite frightening.


Over time, many users accumulate old smartphones. Picture:

Consumer attitude: Always the newest!

I was shocked by the number of devices that are expected to be purchased in Germany alone in 2021. A survey by Statista expects sales of 22.1 million new devices this year. And this despite the fact that coverage in the population is already high: in 2020, around 97.3 percent of people aged 14 to 19 in Germany owned an internet-enabled smartphone. In the age group of 20 to 29 year olds it was 98.1 percent, in the 30 to 39 year olds 97.8 percent.


A new iPhone every year – for some people this is completely normal. Image: © YouTube/ MatthewSantoro 2018

Many people value new models. In a Bitkom survey from the beginning of 2019, a good half (52 percent) stated that they always buy the latest smartphone model. 61 percent of those surveyed own a device that is no more than a year old – so for the majority it really has to be the newest. When it comes to the most important features, better battery performance is at the top of consumer wish lists (59 percent).

Attitude of manufacturers: Ever shorter product cycles

Although newer cell phones have an average longer runtime than older models, smartphones with replaceable batteries disappeared completely from the scene a few years ago. The fact that the battery performance continues to decrease with increasing usage time cannot be prevented. If the cell phone doesn't last a day without being charged, that's a reason for many to buy a new one.

iPhone Display kaputt

A lot of glass makes modern smartphones prone to scratches, cracked displays and backs. Image: © Adobe Stock/karepa 2018

But that's not the only negative development that smartphone manufacturers have pushed in recent years. Devices are also becoming increasingly vulnerable. A design with lots of glass may be chic, but it is anything but robust. Displays scratch or break easily, and repairs are often complicated or expensive due to bonded components. In addition, manufacturers are launching new models more and more quickly.

This is shortening product cycles and making it increasingly difficult for consumers to use the same smartphone for several years. Even if the device is technically still in order, it may be that the manufacturer no longer provides it with security-related software updates after a while.

Problems caused by smartphone production

Of course, the many, many smartphones that are flooding the market first have to be designed and manufactured. And that eats up a lot of resources. "In production, the smartphone needs five to ten times as much energy and CO2 as in use," explains Ralph Hintemann from the Borderstep Institute for Sustainability to ZDF . The production of printed circuit boards and semiconductors requires a particularly large amount of energy, while the production of batteries, displays and the like is less important.

Kupfermine Kongo

More than 50 percent of the world's mined cobalt comes from the Congo. According to Fairphone, the mines have a significantly different stage of development, here you can see an already very industrial copper mine. Image: © Fairphone 2019

In addition to the CO2 emissions during production, the use of certain materials is particularly problematic. Precious metals and so-called rare earth metals are required for the production of smartphones. To extract them, they are washed with acids from boreholes. This leaves poisoned sludge, which poses a threat to groundwater. These toxic substances are not only problematic for the environment, but also for the people who mine them or live nearby. Forests are also cleared to get to the metals. The extraction of raw materials therefore destroys nature and often takes place under inhumane working conditions.

The latter does not look any different in the production facilities in low-wage countries like China. Something may have changed since the 2010 Foxconn scandal , which was sparked by the suicide of more than a dozen workers at the Apple supplier. However, there are reports of poor working conditions with long shifts and poor pay.

problems arising from use

Smartphone production is one side that is bad for people and the environment. The use is the other. While the smartphone itself is very energy efficient, it is the amount of data that becomes a problem. "The smartphone needs 20 times as much energy and CO2 to use as the actual device needs," explains sustainability expert Ralph Hintemann to ZDF . Because every WhatsApp message, every social media posting runs through a server in a data center that eats up electricity.

Shot of Corridor in Working Data Center Full of Rack Servers and Supercomputers with Cloud Storage Advantages Icon Visualisation.

Even the non-obvious – the data consumption of smartphones – poses a problem for the environment. Image: © Gorodenkoff – 2018

The amount of data is increasing and so are the data centers. The mobile phone provider Vodafone alone states that 580 million gigabytes of data rushed through the provider’s mobile network in 2018. In order for servers to work properly, they have to be cooled – and that takes a lot of energy. Modern technologies that would reduce the power consumption of data centers often have a hard time here. After all, safety is the top priority for operators. And that is often at the expense of energy efficiency.

Smartphone problems in brief

  • Number of devices is growing
  • Product cycles are getting shorter and shorter
  • Smartphones break faster and are difficult or expensive to repair
  • Models become obsolete quickly
  • Manufacturing consumes a lot of energy
  • Mining required metals is harmful to health and pollutes the environment
  • Production often under questionable working conditions
  • Data volumes are constantly growing, more and more servers are required
  • Data centers are more about security than energy efficiency

Something has to change!

So there are a whole host of environmental issues that come with buying and using smartphones. But that also means that there are many levers that can be used to change something. Even small steps in the right direction are better than none. In my opinion, approaches such as those of Fairphone and Co. are therefore quite commendable – even if the companies have often been accused of only acting more fairly and more sustainably than the majority of corporations at individual points in the production chain.

Fairphone and Co.


The Dutch company Fairphone has made it its mission to develop ethically correct modular smartphones. For this, the manufacturer relies on a robust design, fair trade materials, good working conditions as well as reusability and recycling. Transparency is also a priority with the Fairphone. Although critics complain that "conflict-free" is not the same as "fair" and that the Fairphone is at best a smartphone produced fairlyER, the company has received numerous awards and environmental prizes for its approach.

Manufacturers and suppliers can do that

The environmental organization Greenpeace also praises Fairphone's approach. In their Guide to Greener Electronics 2017, the smartphone manufacturer takes first place, taking into account several factors, ahead of corporations such as Apple and Co. Two years ago, Samsung actually did quite poorly in this ranking because, unlike Apple, it hardly relied on renewable energies . Valuable raw materials were also rarely recycled. The Chinese smartphone manufacturers in particular attracted negative attention at this point in time due to the use of harmful chemicals in production. Only Apple and Google avoided substances like BFR, PVC and phthalates.

Greenpeace Guide to Greener Electronics

In 2017, Greenpeace created a ranking of technology manufacturers in which Samsung performed comparatively poorly. Image: © Greenpeace 2019

Manufacturers would therefore not only have to rely more on renewable energies throughout the production chain, but also use resources more responsibly in order to become more sustainable. Greenpeace is also calling for a rethink of the throwaway mentality. Smartphones should finally be designed to be more robust and durable in order to extend their life cycle. Repairs should not be unnecessarily complicated by glued components and our own screw designs. Modular designs and options for replacing or expanding components such as batteries or storage could increase service life. On the software side, too, manufacturers should maintain their devices longer with necessary updates.

But not only the smartphone manufacturers are challenged, the entire IT industry should become more sustainable for the sake of the environment. Mobile phone and app providers as well as all companies that operate large data centers that are needed for smartphone use should invest in climate protection. What could that look like? Establish new technologies for cooling data centers, for example. For example, some are experimenting with energy recovery from waste heat generated when cooling the server rooms, while others are relying on increasing virtualization to reduce the amount of hardware.


You don't have to do without smartphones to pay more attention to sustainability. Picture:

The state can do that

The state can – no, it should – support such projects more. The German Environmental Aid (DUH) demands legal standards for eco-design as well as binding target quotas for collection, reuse and the use of recyclates. Barbara Metz, the deputy federal manager of the DUH, says in a press release : "In order to stop ever shorter product cycles, the federal government must change the framework conditions. Services for the maintenance of ICT devices must be tax-privileged compared to the consumption of resources by new products. Also particularly environmentally friendly devices, such as used smartphones, should be made more interesting for consumers through financial incentives".

Smartphones Recycling

So far, there is no obligation to recycle or there are no ecological standards for production. Image: © picture alliance / dpa 2019

In addition, the DUH repeatedly brings up a deposit on smartphones in order to get the waste of resources and the growing mountains of rubbish under control. According to the organization , around 124 million old cell phones are slumbering in German drawers, and only around 9,000 discarded smartphones are sold every year. The professional reprocessing of an old device could save around 14 kilograms of primary resources and 58 kilograms of CO2.

Everyone can do that

However, there are still neither binding environmental standards for manufacturers nor an obligation to recycle. Therefore, each individual is asked to change something. You can already pay attention to the environmental friendliness of devices when buying a smartphone. Environmental labels such as the "Blue Angel" or ratings from Stiftung Warentest and Öko-Test provide clues. You are particularly sustainable with modular and easy-to-repair smartphones such as those from Fairphone or Shift. But even if these models are not for you, you can strike at one of the more environmentally friendly manufacturers according to Greenpeace – for example Apple rather than Oppo.

Galaxy S10 Cover

The more fragile the smartphone, the more important it is to protect the housing and display. Picture:

Buying a smartphone is of course just the beginning. If you want to implement more sustainability in everyday life, you should limit use to the bare minimum and not participate in every model cycle. The longer you use your device, the better for the environment. So it is best to protect it with display foils, protective covers and the like. If something does happen, it is better to have damage repaired than to switch to a new smartphone. Incidentally, permanently installed batteries can also be replaced, even if you have to hand the device over to a cell phone repair shop.

And when the time comes to replace the old device, then take care of professional disposal. There are many initiatives that collect and recycle old cell phones for a good cause. Many mobile phone providers also take back old devices. If the smartphone still works, it might be worth reselling it.

It's better this way

Smartphones designed and produced to be more sustainable are available from these manufacturers:

You can get rid of old devices here, for example:

Personally, I think it's a shame that more than ten years after the launch of the first smartphones, we still haven't found any political solutions for more sustainability in the industry. Of course, I can also take a good look at many points and improve my own actions significantly. At least I'm willing to do it – like many of these younger generations, who have too often been accused of indifference and disenchantment with politics. The Fridays for Future movement shows me that many want to change something. And that is even more promising together!

Inspiration for sustainability: 4 questions for Louisa Dellert

She started as a fitness influencer, but is now trying to use her reach for topics such as sustainability and environmental protection: Louisa ("Lou") Dellert not only has more than 480,000 followers on Instagram, but also runs an online shop with environmentally friendly products. In her book "My Heart Beats Green" she gives practical tips for more sustainability in everyday life. So I asked her a few questions about smartphones and the environment.

: What do you think is the biggest problem with smartphone use today?

Lou: One problem I don't rule out is that we're on the phone really, really often. As a result, we also have to load it relatively frequently. I have to charge it two or three times a day. That consumes a lot of electricity. And not everyone – like my family and I – has a photovoltaic system at home that produces the electricity itself. In addition, the production of smartphones is not particularly environmentally friendly. The production even causes five to ten times as much CO2 emissions as the use.

: Who is primarily called upon to change something?

Lou: I would say all of us. I as a consumer. The manufacturers. But also the mobile phone tariff providers who sell the mobile phones in their shops. I haven't even seen a Fairphone yet…

: Does it make any difference if I change something as an individual? How do I remain steadfast when those around me act differently?

Lou: It's like voting. Of course, every vote and every action counts. We also need to take on more responsibility. And we have the privilege of being able to do the same.

: What do you wish for the future?

Lou: That I can change even more in my everyday life and thereby inspire others. Because I'm anything but perfect.


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