In the space of ten years, the “intelligent” telephone has become democratized to the point of becoming an ordinary everyday object. However, do we really measure the amount of resources needed to produce these handheld computers?
He accompanies you all day, often makes your life easier, perhaps you are reading this article thanks to him. But do you really know what it is made of? Since its irruption on the mobile phone market in the second half of the 2000s, the touchscreen smartphone, allowing you to make calls, but also to surf the internet, take photos or use countless connected applications, has is imposed as a matter of course in our lives.-
Making a smartphone requires the water equivalent of 10,000 packs of 6 x 1.5L bottles
According to data collected for NegaOctet, manufacturing a single standard smartphone thus requires the water equivalent of 10,000 packs of 6 x 1.5 L bottles and the energy equivalent of a 455 km journey. in a thermal car.
Even before the first use, a smartphone therefore generates a significant environmental impact, all the more problematic as it relies in part on very limited resources. “We only have 30 years of digital technology left in front of us, warns Frédéric Bordage. At the rate at which we consume these resources, the stocks of the various materials used to manufacture smartphones and many other high-tech objects will be empty in 30 years. And the rarer these materials become, the greater the waste of energy and resources needed to extract them.
A 300 g smartphone = 5.3 tons of earth extracted from the ground
Inside a multifunction mobile, we find carbon in the form of petroleum (transformed into plastic for the hull), silicon (with which the glass of the window is made), lithium and cobalt (which make up most of the battery), but also a multitude of other materials, including the famous “rare earths”, often present in very small quantities and assembled according to their properties to create the various electronic components essential to the operation of the machine.
Upstream of blending, the extraction of these substances is therefore an essential step, the environmental cost of which is far from insignificant. “To manufacture a 300 g smartphone, we will have needed 237 kg of raw materials, and to obtain this quantity of raw materials, we will have had to extract 5.3 tons of earth”, explains Frédéric Bordage, founder of the GreenIT collective, which notably contributed to the NegaOctet database and to a study commissioned by the Ecological Transition Agency (ADEME) on the environmental impact of digital technology in France.
77% of the French population owns at least one smartphone
The latest INSEE statistics perfectly illustrate this omnipresence: in 2021, 77% of the French population (including 94% of 15-29 year olds!) owned at least one smartphone. However, if its lightness, its sleek appearance and its ease of use have largely contributed to its dazzling success, these characteristics are deceptive: a high-tech object, a real pocket computer, the “smart” telephone is the result of industrial processes as heavy than complex.
As a user, it would be wrong to think that the ecological footprint of a smartphone is reduced to the electricity consumed to recharge it. Conversely, the manufacturing stage is by far the one that generates the most environmental impacts, as indicated by the work carried out by several independent researchers as part of the NegaOctet project, whose objective is to assess and to improve “the environmental performance of digital services”.
52 different substances in a “smart” phone
In order to better measure the ecological weight of smartphones, the researchers applied the life cycle analysis (LCA) method, which takes into account the phase of use, but also the previous stages (manufacture, distribution ) and later (recycling, end of life). For each of the seven indicators studied (ranging from water consumption to the quantities of CO2 released, passing through the fossil and non-fossil resources used), the result is clear: between 60 and 100% of the ecological impacts come from the phase Manufacturing.
To achieve a jewel of miniaturized technology like the smartphone, it is indeed necessary to deploy mountains of effort, and already to gather a certain number of raw materials to manufacture the various elements (screen and glass, shell, battery, motherboard, circuits integrated, etc). According to an animation published in 2017 by the SystExt association, which specializes in research on extraction systems, there are no fewer than 52 different substances in a standard mid-range smartphone (metals, minerals or fluids), corresponding as many elements on Mendeleev’s famous periodic table.
“We only have 30 years of digital technology left in front of us”
“If we consider digital as a precious resource, we should save it today, advocates the founder of GreenIT. There is an issue for our children. We are not talking about future generations, but about that which is already here. The children who are on Earth today will experience the end of the digital age in their lifetime.” After having adopted it as a standard in a few decades, to the point for example of “dematerializing” a certain number of administrative procedures, will the West and humanity as a whole have to learn to live without the digital tool?
As it stands, the danger is in any case accentuated by the impossibility of reducing the impacts generated by the manufacture of smartphones, because “industrial processes do not know how to do better today”, assures Frédéric Bordage. At the other end of the smartphone life cycle, recycling does not seem to be a viable solution. “We can recover certain materials, but the techniques are very polluting and extremely resource-intensive, especially water-consuming”, warns the researcher.
“The key is to make it last, Frédéric Bordage finally decides. On the one hand, you need a truly modular design, which can allow you, for example, to change the battery yourself and make the phone last. warranty periods of 2 to 5 years. The other major issue, to extend the total useful life of the product, is reuse. This does not necessarily mean keeping the same smartphone as long as possible, but rather to take care, when it is changed, to give it a second life by selling it to a reconditioner who will then redistribute it.”
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