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Mobile phones are all around us and have become essential for staying connected with our loved ones, browsing the internet, playing games, watching movies, and performing several computing-based tasks. Due to shrinking prices and technological advancements, people are rapidly upgrading their phones. As a result, their average lifespan is gradually decreasing which is concerning from an environmental viewpoint.
Millions of cellphone units are thrown into landfills every day, creating an environmental hazard. The build material of cellphones contains metals and chemicals that can have a devastating impact on the local ecosystems when they leach into the groundwater. Recycling old cell phones carries its own carbon footprint as companies use a lot of energy to extract precious metals from the mobile corpses.
The good news is that modern consumers are more environmentally conscious than the previous generations. As a result, more sustainable products are entering the market every day. Among these products are eco-friendly phones, which are revolutionizing the whole industry.
In this post, we’ll talk about the environmental burdens of mobile phone manufacturing and how mobile phones can be made more eco-friendly, leaving a smaller carbon footprint. And if you’re ready to switch, we’ll share our top picks of the best eco-friendly smartphones in the market today.
The Environmental Toll of Mobile Phone Manufacturing
In 2021, there are over five billion smartphone users. And each device features several precious metals, such as gold, aluminum, and less-known materials like terbium. Mining these materials is a massive process that requires a lot of resources and energy.
Iron, copper, and aluminum make up the highest percentage of metals in cellphones by weight. Iron is used to produce frames, microphones, and speakers. Most of the wiring in mobile phones primarily contains copper, while aluminum serves as a lightweight alternative to steel frames. These metals aren’t simply dug from the ground. They require a complicated extraction and refining process before you can get the result. More importantly, the extraction of these metals leads to enormous volumes of solid and liquid waste that can span square miles in area.
Most modern cellphones also contain gold and tin. The extraction of these metals has led to serious ecosystem destruction, especially in Indonesia and Peru. Gold is a pure metal and a great conductor which is why it is used in connectors and wires. However, the extraction of gold also introduces side products and waste materials like mercury and cyanide. These substances are extremely toxic and can easily contaminate water and the ecosystem.
Lastly, tin is not essentially a part of cell phones. However, it is used in soldering metal parts. Modern cellphone manufacturers use an indium-tin-oxide coating to make touchscreens functional. The extraction of tin has seriously degraded Indonesia’s seabed, which contains about 70% of the world’s supply.
Hazardous Materials in Mobile Phones
Before we talk about eco-friendly phones, let us talk about the different metals found in cellphones and their potential impact if not disposed of properly:
Lead is an essential component found in mobile phones’ circuit boards. However, if it enters the bloodstream in large quantities, it can cause severe poisoning, leading to kidney and liver damage. Children can also suffer from neurological damage if exposed to sufficient quantities.
Nickel is commonly found in cell phone batteries. It is a carcinogenic metal, meaning it can cause cancer if sufficient quantities enter the bloodstream regularly.
Magnesium is another essential metal used in circuit board design and phone cases. When high quantities enter the bloodstream, it can alter your biochemistry and induce neurological changes that can kill brain cells and increase the risk of Alzheimer’s.
4. Zinc + Cadmium
Zinc is an essential nutrient. However, when it combines with cadmium, it can seriously harm the kidneys.
Copper presents a great risk to the environment, especially marine life. It occurs naturally in the environment, but becomes toxic in high quantities. 
According to studies Nickel represents the highest carcinogenous risk from mobile phones, and copper is responsible for the highest ecotoxicity. 
The Conventional Cell Phone Recycling Process
The conventional cell phone recycling strategy usually involves companies exporting old or used cell phones to developing countries. While this doesn’t solve the problem, it does help buy more time since these phones don’t end up in the trash. And when people buy refurbished phones, they curb the demand for new cellphones.
Secondly, mobile phones that are deemed unusable are sent for recycling, which usually involves shredding the device and heating it to extract the relevant metals. However, recycling cell phones hosts many health, safety, and environmental challenges, including chemical exposure, greenhouse gases emission, and poor storage facilities. Not to mention recycling usually carries high upfront costs.
How Mobile Phones Can be Made More Environmentally Friendly
In a world where pollution has become a serious problem, every industry has an important role to play in minimizing waste and adapting safe practices. The cell phone industry has to do the same. Here’s how mobile phones can be made more eco-friendly:
1. Green Mining and Recycling Practices
To reduce the environmental impact of cell phones, metal extraction and recycling companies have to improve the efficiency of their process to reduce energy use and waste. This starts with adapting to new mining and recycling technologies, shutting down unregulated mines, and a green supply chain. For instance, companies can invest in solar panels to reduce their on-grid energy consumption. Or, they can use bio-diesel or hybrid trucks to transport waste or raw material to/from sites.
2. Incentivized Recycling Policies
You might have heard about plastic vending machines using which you can deposit plastic bottles and make some cash out of it. Why can’t you do the same for cell phones? Each device has a unique IMEI that tells you the make, model, and specifications of the phone. Recycling companies can use this information to set the device’s salvage value and reward recyclers accordingly. For example, recycling an unrepairable iPhone X might get you more cash than an older model due to higher quality build parts. The fact is incentivizing recycling can help companies save a lot of money in recovering used or broken cell phones by maintaining a single source of collection. This way, all cell phones are recycled at a lower cost and reusable phones can be sold at better prices.
3. More Recycled Parts
Many recycling companies stop at extracting precious metals from old cell phones and dispose of other salvageable parts including battery connectors, circuit boards, screens, screws, speakers, and aerials. These parts can easily be used in new or refurbished cell phones, thereby saving cost and resources.
4. Refurbished Phones
A huge chunk of the carbon footprint associated with cell phones is during the manufacturing process. As a result, the most environmentally friendly phones available today are refurbished or used ones. Think about it. By opting for a used mobile instead of a new phone, you can reduce the overall demand from the raw materials to the finished product itself. Mobile phones undergo a professional reconditioning process that fixes all defects and damages, such as broken screens, faulty wiring, and old batteries. Some used phones even come with a warranty, depending on the model. Due to the abundance of smartphones in the market today, you can even find refurbished versions of the latest iPhones or Galaxy models providing you the experience of a new phone.
5. Subscription Phones
Another viable solution to reduce the environmental impact of cell phones is to limit their sale. Many manufacturers and carriers are adopting a subscription model in which phones will be leased, not sold anymore. This way, they can improve the recovery rates of cellphones as consumers will be paying a monthly cost instead of a one-time cost. This model might also limit hardware and software based on price to improve the lifespans of phones.
Did you know that used phone cases also represent an environmental threat? Check out our article about eco-friendly phone cases to learn more. To become even more environmentally conscious, you can have a look at the solar power banks we recommend.
The Best Eco-Friendly Phones in the Market – Our Top 4 Picks
The following are our top picks of the best eco-friendly smartphones in the market today:
Fairphone is a popular mobile phone brand that specialized in manufacturing eco-friendly smartphones. All its devices are primarily made of premium recycled materials. And the new Fairphone 3 plus is the latest addition to its unique green phone line. And the fact that it’s an eco-friendly smartphone isn’t its only outstanding feature. The smartphone is right up there with the best of the best, featuring a 5.85-inch LCD, a Snapdragon 632 chipset, and 4 gigabytes of RAM.
Moreover, the phone is openly moddable, meaning you can simply add parts in the future instead of upgrading to new models. For example, the Fairphone 3 model features a different camera array. Instead of upgrading to the Fairphone 3 plus model, they can simply purchase the new camera array and attach it to their device.
2. iPhone XR, XS, X and 8
It’s 2021, and you’re probably wondering what the iPhone 8 is doing on this list when iPhone 13 is in development. Well, if you’re looking for a flagship eco-friendly phone from a world-renowned brand, the iPhone 8 and X Series is a smart choice. These models are not only water and dust resistant, they’re free of PCX and BFR, which means that they qualify for the Apple GiveBack program and recycling. Most models have EPEAT badge, certifying the sustainability impact of electronic products.
Sony is one of the most underrated cell phone manufacturers in the world. One of its most prominent series, the Xperia Z series is largely made of recyclable materials. The company introduced the “Road to Zero” environmental plan which aims to attain a 100% eco-friendly product line in the future to ensure zero environmental damage by its brand. Sony’s eco-friendly smartphones already have reduced levels of toxic materials.
4. Moto E
If you’re in the market for an inexpensive eco-friendly phone, we highly recommend the Moto E6. This low-end phone makes our list not because of its build materials but the fact that it is among the most repairable phones on the market, which makes it incredibly durable. Instead of tossing it in the trash when it malfunctions, you can easily buy replacement parts, such as displays, circuit boards, and batteries from stores. And considering its low price, it packs some great features. For example, you can expand storage up to 256GB. The interface is smooth thanks to an octa-core Qualcomm processor running on 2GB Ram.
Frequently Asked Questions
The following are some frequently asked questions about Eco-Friendly Cell Phones:
1. Is buying a used phone eco-friendly?
Yes, a used cellphone is an eco-friendly option as it is not only cheaper but also cuts down on manufacturing waste and saves resources. Refurbished phones are becoming quite popular in global cellphone markets so you shouldn’t have any problem finding your favorite brand and model.
2. How often should I change my phone?
Smartphones are more advanced in terms of features and durability. As long as you take care of them properly, they can last for years. The best time to change a cellphone is when its technology or software becomes obsolete. Others wait till their phones’ batteries start depleting faster. On average, you should change your phone every two years.
3. How should I dispose of my old phone in an eco-friendly way?
The best way to safely dispose of an old cellphone is by finding recycling companies that buy or collect old electronics from consumers.
4. Do I need to dispose of the battery separately?
Most cell phone recycling companies have special waste management facilities for batteries. If they don’t, you can remove the battery from your cell phone and dispose of it separately by contacting a designated company or service.
5. Are cellphones bad for the environment?
Cellphones are made of materials that are extracted via mining, which is an extremely harmful process. These materials include gold, lithium, and cobalt, all of which are irreplaceable. Mobile manufacturing contributes to global warming as manufacturing plants release greenhouse gases into the environment.
Unfortunately, eco-friendly phones arent quite as prominent as the flagship models of their respective companies. However, many brands are playing their part in reducing the environmental impact of cell phone manufacturing. And it’s only a matter of time when most models in the market will be sustainable. Until then, we hope you find our top picks of the best eco-friendly smartphones in the market worthy of consideration.