What it takes to make a phone?

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Written by: Katie Osborne

We love smartphones. It’s our whole world in our hands – it gives us access to the world, information at the tap of a finger, and daily memes to make our day. And although we love them, we often don’t have time to really question what is in our smartphones. In an age where we are grappling to keep up with the newest models, smartphones are expected to be produced at an increased rate “between 2010 and 2030 from around 350 million to around 3,000 million units” (1) per year (1). This is a concerning statistic due to the manufacturing process being the biggest contributor to the overall greenhouse gas emissions of the full life of a smartphone (2)(3).

It is also difficult to determine the true environmental impact of smartphones as there are many components such mineral sourcing, smelting, manufacturing, production and transport that rely on smartphone companies to be transparent in producing reports in these areas (4). However, researchers as part of the International ICT Conference for Sustainability in 2016, measured a Samsung Z5 smartphone model in terms of factors such as global warming potential, ozone depletion material, toxicity potential, and freshwater consumption from production to disposal. In terms of greenhouse gas emissions, the production process alone was estimated at 48 kilograms of carbon dioxide equivalence (2). These sorts of predicted emissions are expected to help smartphones triple their greenhouse gas contributions between 2010 and 2020 within the ICT sector to 11% globally (5).

As well as greenhouse gases, the minerals used in important bits and pieces in the back of smartphones – commonly elements like tungsten, tin, tantalum and gold (referred to as ‘3TG’),are of concern (6). Not only are these minerals nonrenewable with their remaining supply subject to demand (3), but the global trading of these 3TGs from their countries of origin have been connected to the demand for ‘conflict minerals’ (6). These are minerals that are directly or indirectly used for funding internal conflicts in countries such as the Democratic Republic of Congo (6). With concerns over traceability, there is potentially a current 15% of certain minerals in the global supply of electronics (including smartphones) that are considered ‘conflict’ (6).

So… is it time to bring back the Nokia brick? Should we give up the smartphone luxury and be entertained exclusively by the snake game? Well, amongst the doom and gloom – there is some hope. The European company Fairphone have taken the lead on corporate responsibility in the smartphone world. They employ practices that are fair trade, use recycled materials such as 50% recycled tungsten in their phones, and provide replacement parts including the main battery pack to enable customers to keep their handset longer and keep manufacturing impacts to a minimum (3).

It is also you the user and consumer, that has the ability to make conscious decisions to reduce the impact smartphones are having, and will continue to have, on our environment. Using your phone efficiently and conservatively, choosing companies that are transparent in their production output and material sourcing, and replacing your phone with second hand or refurbished models, all helps to reduce the impact of global smartphone production, and everything it takes to make a phone.


  1. Andrae, A., & Edler, T. (2015). On global electricity electricity usage of communication technology: Trends to 2030. Challenges, 6(1), 117-157. https://doi.org/10.3390/challe6010117
  2. Ercan, M., Malmodin, J., Bergmark, P., Kimfalk, E., & Nilsson, E. (2016). Life Cycle Assessment of a Smartphone. Paper presented at the 4th International Conference on ICT for Sustainability (ICT4S), Amsterdam, The Netherlands https://doi.org/10.2991/ict4s-16.2016.15
  3. Jardim, E. (2017). From Smart to Senseless: The Global impact of 10 Years of Smartphones. Washington D.C., United States: Greenpeace.
  4. Suckling, J., & Lee, J. (2015). Redefining scope: the true environmental impact of smartphones? The International Journal of Life Cycle Assessment, 20(8), 1181-1196. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11367-015-0909-4
  5. Belkhir, L., & Elmeligi, A. (2018). Assessing ICT global emissions footprint: Trends to 2040 and recommendations. Journal of Cleaner Production, 177, 448-463.
  6. Fitzpatrick, C., Olivetti, E., Miller, T., Roth, R., & Kirchain, R. (2015). Conflict Minerals in the Compute Sector: Estimating Extent of Tin, Tantalum, Tungsten, and Gold Use in ICT Products. Environmental Science & Technology, 49(2), 974-981. https://doi.org/10.1021/es501193k