The two most zero-waste smartphones you can buy

In Search Of Zero Waste

My mission: To find the zero waste economy

This week: Smartphones

guess which greenie?

There are two sorts of greenie: those who join co-operatives, buy all their produce at fair-trade markets and everything they own is bought second-hand, endlessly repaired or traded …

… and there’s people like me, who do some of that but still find themselves reaching for the Yellow Pages (now known as Google) and searching for “the right thing” to do. Which is zero waste. That’s what this series is about.

Why zero waste smartphones?

This week I’m looking at smartphones. According to the authors of Waste to Wealth each mobile device creates anaverage of three tons of toxic mining waste – including arsenic, lithium, cadmium, mercury, and zinc. Waste which finds its way into the soil and groundwater, and is often shipped to India, Africa or China, where it often finds its way into toxic e-waste mountains.

an e-waste mountain

Where are the zero waste smartphones?

Environmental campaign organisation Greenpeace, they of the Rainbow Warrior and heroic loonies scaling Nelson’s Column for attention (they got it), have published a Greener Electronics guide.

I’m in luck! And top of the green credentials as far as smartphones go is a device called the Fairphone 2.

Hang on! I’ve found something here. Greenpeace approves of Fairphone. Then it has to be good. Let’s see what’s in it, what it’s about:

The Greenpeace report is an eye-opener and looks at issues like

transparency in the supply chain, planned obsolescence as a design feature and transparency in tackling the global e-waste problem.

Fairphone 2 is a modular smartphone made using conflict-free minerals, minerals which have not been mined in conflict zones, which can involve child labour and the proceeds of which can go to finance wars.

The materials that go into smartphones include tin, tungsten and tantalum. I haven’t even heard of that last one, but I know it’s probably bad for us. The Fairphone also contains Fairtrade gold. Yes, we’re even throwing gold away with our mobiles.

gold – we throw this away with our smartphones

Being modular the Fairphone is designed to be easier to repair and upgrade yourself. So you can get a lot more life from it, and since it can cost you £520 (whether or not its part of a contract) you may as well. I’ve always been amazed how much we’ll pay for a smartphone.

Escape from ‘free’ upgrades

Although it’s quite a price to pay, most of us are shielded from the true cost of ownership by ‘free’ upgrades. In fact these cost quite a lot more than it would to buy your own (up goes the monthly rental as I found out myself when I didn’t upgrade), plus they encourage you to keep upgrading them, which is even worse for the environment. If we were more aware of the true cost of these items we would be more keen to look after them.

This little baby costs a lot more than your laptop most probably (unless it’s a Mac of course).

You can get a Fairphone from the Phone Co-op, which as the name suggests is a cooperative.

I notice the Phone Co-op offers a monthly plan for around £30 which includes the Fairphone, so you can get your ethical phone without having to find the cash up front.

Hint: get insurance.

But … Wired reviewed the Fairphone 2 and commented that

“you need to consider the limits of what a small company can really offer in terms of an ‘ethical’ mass-produced phone. Its struggle is valiant, but it’s far from easy.”

It’s just that a small company has a limited amount it can do about all the components that go into a smartphone. These still have a big environmental footprint.

OK … option 2

Maybe I’ll keep my iPhone after all. Especially since, as Greenpeace so neatly puts it, “The most sustainable gadget on the market is the one you already own.” Meaning – hang on to it as long as you can.

And surprisingly, second on the Greenpeace list are Apple themselves, at which about a million people must breathe a sigh of relief. This includes me. Apple gets a straight A for it’s use of renewable energy, and its strong chemical management in both products and manufacturing. However, not so good in designing its products to be more repairable. According to Greenpeace the company was even blocking efforts to increase customer access to repair services.

Apple is very good on its supply chain, committing to 100% renewable power. It also has a commitment since 2012 to power its data centres with renewable energy. It has a renewable energy goal for its supply chain. When the report was published 14 suppliers had made near-term commitments to become 100% renewably powered for the Apple-related portion of the supplier’s energy demand.

But Apple is moving “in the wrong direction” on planned obsolescence, according to the report: the products were difficult to service or upgrade, shortening their useful life, and the company has actively lobbied against “right to repair” legistation in New York and Nebraska and also blocked attempts to strengthen environmental electronics standards.

However, Apple has voluntarily extended its supply chain due-diligence program to include cobalt, a material tied up with forced child labor issues.

Apple scored well on transparency and monitoring of workplace chemicals too, which relates to protecting worker health and safety Apple publishes a list of substances that must be restricted in the manufacturing of its devices.

What about the Circular economy?

A few years ago I developed an interest in a concept known as the Circular Economy. It is promoted by architects like William McDonough and record-breaking round the world yaughtswoman Ellen MacArthur. I bought the Waste to Wealth book, I attended conferences.

The circular economy creates zero waste products. It’s amazing – everything is designed so the kind of problems we are used to – pollution, exploitation, waste – simply don’t exist.

Trouble is, where is it? The circular economy doesn’t exist yet. Not in great numbers, if at all. That’s another thing I’ll be looking for.

So meanwhile I’m looking for zero waste products, products where the manufacturer has evolved to the point where literally nothing is wasted. I’ve got a feeling I’ll be waiting a while for that too, but let’s see.

In 2017 Apple set a  goal to move toward a closed-loop supply chain for all its products. What’s a closed-loop supply chain? One that completely reuses, recycles, or composts all materials. It’s a circular economy concept.

To be honest, given their size I was surprised how well Apple did in the Greenpeace report.

But is it zero waste?

No, it’s still not totally zero-waste, so my score at finding a zero-waste mobile phone company is so far a big zero.

I’ve come to realise that how we do things now – some of us doing our best to reduce, reuse and recycle – is just an interim stage. We are actually transitioning between an ancient mine it – make it – chuck it model, and a completely revolutionary zero-or-minimal waste world. This is a big project! But it’s not a hopeless project. We have at least one big ally, and that’s technology. Computer systems to monitor and control waste. Computer systems to produce designs no human could achieve. AI to build things. Scary? Maybe, but that’s the future, and in many ways it’s the present.

2 thoughts on “The two most zero-waste smartphones you can buy”

  1. This article highlights the depressing nature of sustainability and the issue of waste. The problem seems insurmountable!

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