I need a new phone. Like many of us with older model iPhones, my battery life is just a few hours and I've stopped updating the operating system to extend the phone's life. But I'm having a tough time pulling the trigger. It's not the cost (although that is hefty, especially on a grad student salary). It's not the hassle either. It's the environment.
Making smartphones, laptops, and other tech takes a lot of resources. This is partly due to the carbon emissions from the manufacturing process, but the biggest toll comes from the mining of the rare earth metals that make your phone work. If you're reading this on your phone right now, you're holding about 0.034 grams of gold, 0.34 grams of silver, and smaller amounts of palladium, platinum, yttrium, terbium, and gadolinium — among others. These are tiny amounts, but consider the demand for smartphones around the world.
All of these rare elements have to be mined from inside the Earth, in places like China and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Mining is hugely environmentally destructive: forests are decimated, the ground is disturbed, and water quality in the area takes a dive. Worse still, the cobalt mining industry in the DRC depends on child labor. And elsewhere in the DRC, mining for coltan, another smartphone ingredient, threatens a key population of Grauer's gorillas.
Now take these environmental risks, and combine them with the fact that the average lifespan of a smartphone is just two years, the length of your contract with your cell phone company. After that, if you're lucky, you get a "free" upgrade. Awesome, right? Sure, if you ignore the fact that the environmental impact of a new phone is about the same as using your old one for a decade.
It's nearly impossible to live in the 21st century without contributing to environmental destruction and climate change. I am guilty as well — I eat meat and occasionally fly. But that doesn't mean that we should stop trying to do better by our planet, or ignore the consequences of our actions. This Christmas, I urge you to think carefully about that smartphone purchase, not matter what the Black Friday ads are telling you.
I know I am.