It might be newer, more stylish, more popular—but would you buy it if it cost the earth?

Consumers’ desire to have the latest mobile phones on the market is good news for manufacturers but not such good news for the environment, according to a new study from the United Kingdom. In a paper published in June, Dr James Suckling and Dr Jacquinta Lee, from the University of Surrey, found that our compulsive use of mobile phones has many hidden costs.

Suckling and Lee say that the millions of discarded mobile phones lying, forgotten, in drawers and cupboards, contain millions of dollars of valuable metals including copper, silver, gold and platinum metals. The 85 million stockpiled mobile phones in the United Kingdom, for example, are estimated to contain about $170 million of gold alone. Instead of reusing these resources, we’re mining new deposits instead.

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Churning out new mobile phones to replace the old ones is also contributing to global warming. ‘The averaged total GHG [Greenhouse Gas] emission of the smartphones is 47.5 kg CO2’, the authors say.

With few incentives for recycling, consumers’ mobile phones often end up in landfill where the metals and toxic substances they contain leach into the environment.

The solution, the authors say, is to encourage companies to insert a ‘take-back’ clause in their contracts so that the phones can be responsibly recycled. They also encourage the use of cloud-based storage of information to reduce the resources used in phones’ memory storage. James Suckling and Jacquetta Lee, ‘Redefining scope: the true environmental impact of smartphones?’, The International Journal of Life Cycle Assessment, DOI: 10.1007/s11367-015-0909-4, 2015.

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About The Author – Lyn McLean is a consumer advocate, author and educator and has been monitoring and writing on the subject of electromagnetic radiation (EMR) for over 20 years. She is the director of EMR Australia.


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