What is the Carbon Footprint of a Smartphone?

What s the carbon footprint of a smartphone?
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As consumers, we know everything we purchase and use has a certain amount of carbon emissions associated with it. We often only consider the emissions with larger products such as cars and aeroplanes, but a smartphone’s carbon footprint can be significant too.

In the manufacturing and creation of any electronic device, we know it is a complicated and resource heavy process. When we purchase a new mobile phone, we don’t think about the steps and emissions it goes through to get it into our hands.

As the number of smartphones is expected to rise to 50 billion by 2030, buyers and manufacturers must consider the environmental consequences. With sustainability and climate change becoming such a prominent worry, taking more consideration into the carbon cost of our smartphones and how we can reduce it is important to our future sustainability.

One of the most popular smartphones of today, the iPhone 11, generates 72Kg of CO2 in its lifetime. But what does it look like at each step of its creation and use?

carbon emissions of a smartphone pie chart
Graphic sourced from the Guide to Greener Electronics

Using information gained from the Guide to Greener Electronics, and other sources, we’ve generated a carbon timeline for this device. Considering every step of the creation process, we will outline all the areas of a smartphone carbon footprint.

Resource gathering

Electronic devices are one of the most resource-intensive product types due to their need for precious metals. As stated by the Guide to Greener Electronics, the need for elements such as iron and gold require miners to work through more than 30 kilos of rock to obtain just 100 grams of the needed minerals. Because this mining needs specialist machinery to conduct, the emissions generated just to reach the metals in the earth are significant.

The guide also states that 80% of a smartphone’s carbon footprint is generated solely in the production process. If we apply this to our iPhone 11, we can determine that at least 57.6Kgs of carbon has been released into our atmosphere. When the product is not even in the user’s hands yet, we already have a significant smartphone carbon footprint.

Current footprint: 57.6Kg

Transport emissions

When we consider the creation of an asset, the transport of the materials must be considered too. Luckily, the UK is starting to transition over to electronic vehicles, which will reduce these emissions in the future. However, as we cannot determine if electronic vehicles were used in the transportation of our iPhone 11, we must assume they were not electronic.

The amount of transport emissions, determined by the Guide to Greener Electronics, is 3% of the total 72Kg. Of our total emissions, 3% is equal to just 2.16Kg of carbon emitted. When added to the costs of carbon used in production, we start to reach the 60Kg mark.

Current footprint: 59.76Kg

Customer use

Once the product is made, sold, and in our hands for use, the carbon emissions of that phone don’t stop there. The electrical costs of charging and running an iPhone 11 take up 16% of the total emissions.

The cost of a call, text and data usage of a mobile phone all add up. In a poll conducted by phonearena between 1,600 users, it was found most replaced their phones every 2 years. This means with our timeline we must consider 2 years of use when generating the carbon emitted over customer use.

Although we cannot determine the exact emissions during customer use, as everyone is different, we can estimate the emissions based on our percentages. This results in 11.52Kg of carbon released during the time an iPhone 11 is used by a consumer, surprisingly a lot more than that generated during transport.

Current footprint: 71.28Kg

Recycling after use

Now we’re getting closer to our 72Kg total smartphone carbon footprint, the last element to consider is the recycling process. Recycling only contributes to 1% of the total amount of emissions of a smartphone. The recycling process, although costing a small amount of carbon, is essential. The process helps to prevent the need for a new asset being created and the whole carbon footprint being generated again.

With the new Right to Repair Legislation announcement, all newly manufactured smartphones must be repairable for reuse. It is expected that the amount of newly created smartphones will decrease, meaning the production emissions will decrease too. 

To learn more about the rules, read our article: ‘Right to Repair’ Legislation – The new rules explained

Recycling only takes up 0.72Kg of the smartphone carbon footprint, which now brings us to our total 72Kg generated in its lifetime. Of course, this figure would increase if the mobile had continued use, but it still prevents production costs.

Final footprint: 72Kg

Reducing your smartphone carbon footprint

To reduce your phone’s emissions, always consider mobile refurbishment and reuse before opting to throw away your device. The lifetime of a smartphone can be extended by a number of years when repaired, preventing the loss of valuable internal materials. If your device is beyond repair, recycling is another option to ensure your smartphone is disposed of sustainably.

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