Smartphones are damaging the environment faster than we thought

As our devices get smaller and smaller, you'd be forgiven for thinking that the impact they have on the environment also gets smaller. After all, manufacturing the bulky PCs of old must have generated an enormous carbon footprint, and companies nowadays seem to more aware of the need for green manufacturing processes. 

Unfortunately, this is not the case, as researchers at McMaster University have discovered, with smartphones being one of the worst causes of environmental damage. 

Published in the Journal of Cleaner Production, the study analyzed the carbon footprint of PCs, laptops, computer monitors, smartphones, and servers from 2010 to 2020.

They found that the overall impact of technology on the environment is getting worse, even as we have moved away from those bulky PCs to the sleek little smartphones in our pockets. 

A huge impact

Perhaps most telling, is the fact that ICT (Information and Communication Technology) represented just 1% of the carbon footprint in 2007 and, according to the researchers, will top 14% by 2040. 

And it seems like smartphones are one of the biggest culprits. This may come as a surprise considering how small they are, but a big part of the problem comes down to our attitude towards them. 

Building a smartphone from scratch represents between 85% and 95% of it's total carbon dioxide emissions for two years of its life - mining the precious metals and rare materials inside them is a big part of this. 

For the same amount of CO2 emissions as building a new smartphone, you could power a smartphone you already own for around ten years - but who keeps a smartphone for ten years?

Less screen time

Manufacturers like Apple and Samsung make us feel like we need to upgrade our smartphones with every new model they bring out - but if we held on to our older models for just a little bit longer, the carbon footprint of the smartphone industry could be significantly reduced. 

However it's not just about the manufacturing process - the way we use our smartphones also has a huge environmental impact. That's because the largest generator of CO2 emissions are the servers and data centers that calculate every Google search, every Facebook post, and even every time we open an app. 

So how do we lessen our carbon footprint when it comes to our smartphones? The first thing we can all do is to stop upgrading our smartphones so regularly - so maybe think twice before you rush out to buy the latest iPhone model as soon as it's announced. 

The second thing we can do is to try to use our smartphone less frequently in general - although thats easier said than done. However, if you're an iPhone user, you can monitor your usage using Screen Time - and if you do, you may just have a hand in saving the Earth. 

Olivia Tambini

Olivia was previously TechRadar's Senior Editor - Home Entertainment, covering everything from headphones to TVs. Based in London, she's a popular music graduate who worked in the music industry before finding her calling in journalism. She's previously been interviewed on BBC Radio 5 Live on the subject of multi-room audio, chaired panel discussions on diversity in music festival lineups, and her bylines include T3, Stereoboard, What to Watch, Top Ten Reviews, Creative Bloq, and Croco Magazine. Olivia now has a career in PR.