Smartphones should finally extend their life cycle - sustainable approaches are possible

Every fourth human wants to buy a new smartphone each year. This is equivalent to around 20 million devices only in Germany. Smartphones are a huge problem for the environment. They should finally be designed to be more robust and durable to extend their life cycle. Can smartphones and sustainability be combined? 

Eight out of ten people in Germany (81 percent) use a smartphone, three out of four users (73 percent) can no longer imagine life without it. This is the result of a survey by the digital association Bitkom. Buying a new smartphone each or every second year is quite normal. But it's devastating for the environment. Smartphones have not only swallowed up resources in production, but also in use, and at the end they are not properly recycled either.

Although on average newer phones have a longer lifespan than older models, smartphones with replaceable batteries disappeared completely from the scene a few years ago. Meanwhile, it cannot be prevented that battery performance will continue to decline as the phone's useful life increases. If the phone can't last a day without recharging, this is already a reason for many to buy a new one.

smartphones need five to ten times as much energy and CO2 to manufacture as it does to use it

Precious metals and so-called rare earth metals are needed for smartphone production. In order to produce them, they are washed with acids from boreholes. This leaves behind poisoned sludge, which poses a threat to the 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 in order to get to the metals. The extraction of raw materials therefore destroys nature and often takes place under inhumane working conditions.

The German Environmental Aid (DUH) demands legal standards for eco-design as well as binding target quotas for collection, reuse and the use of recycled materials. In addition, it demands a deposit on smartphones in order to control the waste of resources and the growing mountains of rubbish. According to the organisation, around 124 million old mobile phones are lying dormant in German drawers, and only around 9,000 discarded smart phones are put back on sale every year. The professional reprocessing of an old device could save around 14 kilograms of primary resources and 58 kilograms of CO2.

There is hope - in Germany and the netherlands

The Shift GmbH has established itself a couple years ago in Falkendorf in Hessen. The first fair, sustainably produced smartphone from Germany, the Shift-Phone, ist produced here. Also, fugitives work in the office, who have smartphones dismantled into their individual parts in front of them and big screens. At the end of 2014, Shift delivered the first telephones, so far more than 30,000 have been sold. "By the end of the year it should be 50,000," says owner Waldeck. As a comparison: Samsung sold around 295 million smartphones in 2018, Apple 209 million and Huawei 203 million.

Also another company has taken this approach: The Dutch company Fairphone has also built a modular mobile phone in which almost all components can be replaced individually. The company has already received numerous awards and environmental prizes for this.

Metals from humane conditions and interchangeable parts

"For most, everything is glued, baked and soldered. A simple exchange of parts is not possible," says Waldeck. That's exactly what the Shift Phone makers have changed. "We wanted and are now building powerful and at the same time resource-conserving and modular devices.

More than 50 percent of the cobalt mined worldwide comes from the Congo. There are certified (and not certified) mines where coltan and gold are mined. Tantalum is extracted from these mines for the capacitors. The origin of the raw materials and the working conditions during their production are important to the manufacturers. There are fair wages and working hours and no child labour. The majority of mobile phones are then still produced in China. 

444 EUR must currently be paid for the smallest Smartphone, 733 EUR for the most expensive. All batteries and displays can be exchanged. This prolongs the life and service life. The plan is to work even more sustainably in the future. But despite all efforts, the supply chain cannot be traced to the very end.