Extending smartphone lifetimes: A simple way to halve emissions

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Every year, around 20 million smartphones are sold in Germany.

This high turnover takes a toll on the environment, as information and communication technologies contribute about 8% of Germany’s CO2 emissions.

The production of smartphones uses precious metals and rare earths, further worsening the issue.

A new discussion paper titled “Circularity as the Service,” published by the Wuppertal Institute and commissioned by the Vodafone Institute, provides a comprehensive overview of the smartphone lifecycle.

It suggests strategies to extend the life of smartphones and reduce their environmental impact.

Smartphones are crucial in our daily lives. The paper highlights that extending the average smartphone usage from 2.5 years to five to seven years could cut greenhouse gas emissions from smartphones by about half.

This extension would not only benefit the environment but also save consumers money, as they wouldn’t need to buy new devices as frequently.

In fact, a survey in Austria found that users would prefer their smartphones to last around five years.

Different people use smartphones differently, leading to various reasons why phones are discarded. Dr. Julia Reinhard, a researcher at the Wuppertal Institute and the lead author of the paper, points out that the current smartphone lifecycle mainly caters to tech enthusiasts and those who prioritize aesthetics.

However, other groups, including pragmatists, sustainability enthusiasts, price-sensitive users, and long-term users, are also willing to use their smartphones for longer or buy refurbished ones.

To extend smartphone usage, new business models are necessary. According to Apple’s Environmental Product Declaration, about 80% of CO2 emissions occur during production. Therefore, manufacturers should focus on making smartphones more repairable and durable.

This includes designing modular phones that are easier to fix and ensuring that replacement parts are affordable and accessible. Security updates should also be available for at least seven years, but currently, they last only four years for Android and six years for Apple devices.

Promoting a circular economy is essential for extending smartphone lifespans. This involves expanding repair services and increasing the availability of refurbished phones from retailers and telecom providers.

It’s also important to professionally collect and recycle old phones, as there are an estimated 210 million unused mobile devices sitting in drawers across Germany.

The authors of the discussion paper urge the industry and policymakers to work towards more sustainable smartphone usage.

By adopting these strategies, we can significantly reduce the environmental impact of smartphones and help create a more sustainable future.