Smartphones are the invention that, far more than anything else this century, have shaped our lives and technology. Life just wouldn’t be the same without them and the access they provide, and while they have their detractors (often relating to overuse), there is a momentum to their adoption that will not be stopped. Soon everyone will have one, and those that have them will be using them constantly. They are here to stay, and we must consider our relationship with them from multiple viewpoints.
Yet while books can and have been written on smartphones in general, we want to talk about their relationship to the environment. While some focus on the impact of their manufacturing and power usage on the environment, we find that this neglects the bigger picture. There are plenty of benefits to be had for the environment from smartphones, and many of them are things we hardly even notice. Technology can quicken environmental destruction, but it can also make life more efficient, reduce waste, and give us new ways to think about things.
Here are some of the reasons smartphones can be good for the environment, as well as some additional related things to think about:
People can now get in contact with others easier. They can get information about businesses easier. They can get updates on school schedules, events, even elections, and so on. This means people can plan on where they want to go and what they want to do at any given time. And people have less to worry about in terms of organizational misinformation. People know where to meet, how to best use public transport if that is an option, and more. And most of this can be done at any time of the day, reducing wasted time and congestion.
We also have more access to goods that we might otherwise have to travel for. There is something to be said about the consumerism the internet enables, but at the same time getting the right item instead of multiple items reduces waste. The internet, and smartphones, in this case, help us get the right item. They help us get to the right place. They help us contact and stay in contact with the right people. And these facts mean that we make fewer trips, which can help reduce environmental waste. A truck delivering packages, as bad for the environment as it might be, is more efficient than 50 cars making a trip to the store. While shopping local is great, smartphones can also tell us more about what is locally available and give us better access to those businesses. It’s all about how we use smartphones.
We might not always use this increased access most efficiently, and there are ways we can use it better, but smartphones can set us on the right path and give us more ideas for the future. As to what smartphones will allow us to access in terms of products and services (ideally eco-friendly ones), we can only wait and see.
People can do more now with their smartphones than they were able to beforehand. Much like we already discussed, the information and connections they provide allow for less time and (ideally) resources to be wasted. If a smartphone saves us one car trip, it’s certainly worth it from an environmental perspective. And while people might not always have conservation in mind when using their smartphones, this would be the case for some people no matter what they want, use, or do.
Yet smartphones, and the apps and companies that they have enabled, have done much for efficiency. Looking at non-environmental the examples are obvious, but even apps and options that monitor and control power usage while trading off no productivity more than make up for most of the costs. Computing power used to make a solar panel work just a few percent better is power well spent. And given the versatility of smartphones, all it will take is an innovative mind to create the next great app to reduce power and materials usage.
Workplace efficiency and productivity can also improve with the use of smartphones. And while there are temptations to the contrary on phones, this would be true of any device. You can’t avoid human nature here. This can aid eco-friendly businesses or reduce ecological waste for businesses should they wish to put forth the slightest bit of effort on the matter. This is true of internet technologies and computing in general, not just advancements related to smartphones. It will be up to us to make more use of them as time goes on.
It only gets better. When there are more people and items in the system, the better the system works. Uber might not be the best option out in the middle of nowhere, but in a major city, such an app might be the best option to keep people moving without unnecessary return trips. As such usage is normalized across all industries, waste will be minimized even further.
Related to the previous points, smartphones connect us to other people at a distance. A person making one flight can have a massive impact when compared to any other method of travel. Even a long car trip is less than ideal for both the driver and the environment. Now combine this with the number of people that attend larger business meetings. While the recent pandemic has been horrible, it has shown us the impact of people not going out so much or needing to travel. It has also shown how little the need for a commute is in many careers. Millions of people working from home, partially on their smartphones, would be a huge advance for not only the environment but for society in general.
Smartphones allow one to confirm plans, make better plans, and reduce the number of trips one must make. Through the internet more chores and errands can be done at home than ever before, reducing the impact of cars and the waste of organizations and businesses. Even something as simple as arranging for a package to get picked up can make a huge difference when that instance happens millions of times.
Think of the last group call you were on. What would it take to get everyone together? And while there is something to be said about meeting and spending time with people in person, it isn’t always necessary, and it's rarely good for the environment. Virtual hangouts and calls are a far better option when looked at in those terms.
On the same point of travel and its effect on the environment, smartphones allow for much more efficient travel. The most optimal routes can be known in advance. People can know which highways and options have the most traffic and would slow them down and reduce their fuel efficiency. The quickest flight options and the best methods for using public transport can be taken. More people might even opt for using public transit thanks to the information and convenience smartphones provide. However, people use smartphones while traveling, they’re a huge help and make things nicer for the environment in the process.
To what degree they’ll be able to improve travel in the future remains to be seen, but we’re optimistic. Better usage of ride-sharing apps or even car-sharing apps in the future could help keep more cars off the road and keep their usage less wasteful. Computerized systems and algorithms, in general, might be able to steer or clue people in on just how much their travel in impacting the environment, and then what can be done. Whatever the case, we expect the direction to be positive.
Smartphones use power. And given how many of them there are, a lot of power is used by them. Yet they are by far the best option for many people and certainly a more efficient option than having a ton of other electronics plugged in. While some would say that people do not need to be plugged in or using a device so much in the first place, this is unrealistic. People would quite likely be wasteful in other ways if a smartphone wasn’t available.
The amount of power used by a PC is much greater than that used by a smartphone. And this is not taking cryptocurrency mining into account, which is an entirely different environmental problem. And while power usage will vary on each type of device depending on what’s being run and the devices themselves, there is a clear difference to notice.
We can still hope to reduce power usage and build better batteries and charging systems, if only to convenience ourselves. Similarly, we can consider using power-saving methods on our phones when appropriate, and encourage the development of more efficient settings on both devices and operating systems. Changes with power usage are likely to be incremental for some time, but they will add up and they will provide additional benefits to the average user. And when smartphones get to replace even more devices, we’ll start to see the power savings add up and the true impact of that on the environment.
While smartphones are the present, smart homes and the Internet of Things may be the future. The ability to control most things about your home with the press of a button, even when you aren’t there, is an attractive prospect.
Take the smart thermostat as an example (and perhaps the best one). Using your smartphone, you can adjust the temperature of your home when you aren’t there. This can save energy, give you more information on your home environment, and more. You can even program a temperature according to your schedule, so you don’t have to think about it.
And while some people might be willing to tough out an hour or two of the cold (or heat in the summer) when they get home, not everyone is willing to do so, even for the sake of the environment.
Now apply this concept to lighting, other appliances, and more throughout the home. And a smartphone makes it all possible.
The true benefit of smartphones, however, and the one that we want you to take away from this article above everything else, is that smartphones provide more connectivity and access to people around the world than practically anything else that has ever been invented. Most of the entire sum of human knowledge is available at our fingertips on a smartphone and older smartphones at that. If there’s a connection, any basic question (and most advanced ones) can be answered. More people can learn about the environmental impact of their actions and the actions of those around them.
Of course, there is a serious problem with misinformation online, and internet literacy is a necessary skill for anyone hoping to look into more controversial or political topics. Not everything written about the environment online is true. Nonetheless, with the right guidance and efforts, the world can be a more educated and caring place with smartphone usage.
Related to the knowledge and information that smartphones provide everyone is that smartphones allow us to get more information on the environment around us. Whether it is monitoring the weather, using sensors to determine not only locations but things such as air pressure, or connections to more specialized implements, smartphones in the hands of the right people can determine a great deal about the environment as it stands.
This information can be vastly important to ecological efforts around the globe. While researchers and scientists need to lead the charge on many fronts, they cannot do everything. They cannot easily collect information on every point on the planet. With smartphones, which do happen to be everywhere, information can theoretically be collected by volunteers. This data can help people know where efforts can be most impactful. It can help determine what the cause of a problem might be, and help provides information necessary to find solutions.
Granted, some of this is more cutting edge than we’d like, and we would have to question the adoption rate and usage of such apps and tools for smartphones. Nonetheless, it is great hope for the future, provides a tool for the present, and is a demonstration that smartphones can be good for the environment overall.
One of the greatest benefits of smartphones is that is digitalized much of what we would need to get a physical copy of. What if you were to print out every email you’ve gotten over the past month? How much paper and ink would that waste? You would unlikely even read all of them in the first place, much like the junk mail you just throw in the recycling bin.
Now take this principle and apply it to books, CDs, and physical media of all kinds. This is on top of the environmental impact of shipping those materials around the world. Data doesn’t have much of an environmental impact. Yet to most people the media is the same whether it is on a phone or from somewhere else (with some exceptions for books). The reduction of waste the internet and smartphones provide in this sense is astounding. And it's only getting more prolific. Just getting rid of that aforementioned junk mail alone would rid the world of one billion pounds of landfill waste each year.
Furthermore, having a smartphone reduces or eliminates the need for so many other devices people use or need every day. Things such as alarm clocks aren’t needed when a smartphone will do the job. And while a phone can’t process food for you, it can replace a few cookbooks and serve as a radio while you’re in the kitchen. While many people see the need to constantly have more stuff, a sufficient smartphone can be a replacement for so much more potential waste. Yes, a smartphone has an impact, but it's less of an impact than what it is used in place of. Think for a moment of what you’d have 20 years ago. Where would all that go eventually, and what was used to make it? Dematerialization is a big deal.
It is a simple fact that in most hands smartphones can make lives better for all of the reasons listed above and so much more. Even being able to reliably and easily communicate with someone the next town over
And while we might consider a higher quality of life as a sign of increased waste, this does not need to be the case. We only need to rethink how we view products, waste, and what improves our quality of life. Think of it this way: getting three cheap pairs of boots that last a year is likely to have more of an impact than getting one single pair that lasts three years.
And with a higher standard of living comes other benefits. People with a higher standard of living tend to have fewer children on average, lessening the overpopulation crisis. They may also be able to invest in longer-term solutions, which can certainly be more efficient than living day-to-day.
And finally, there is the simple fact that caring about the environment is a luxury to many. Who would care about the effects of global climate change a few decades from now if they struggle to get food on the table today? It’s unrealistic to expect this on either an individual or national level, with some countries embracing harmful industrialization to “catch up” to the rest of the world.
And while we were mostly talking about global impacts, there is no ignoring such effects in the United States as well. A family with a smartphone has more access to the internet and outside services, they can use to help themselves. It can be a tool used to break a cycle that not only has poor social effects but environmental effects as well.
A smartphone isn’t going to change poverty on a global scale, and not everyone can afford or use even the simplest of smartphones. Yet smartphones, and the connections and information they provide, are great tools for bringing people together and forward. They can help introduce new ideas, innovations, and provide some education to help people live better on average.
Smartphones, and the ecosystem surrounding them, have gotten more efficient over time, and we think they’ve done more harm than good. This doesn’t mean the job is done or that there isn’t room for improvement. There are some serious environmental problems caused by smartphones or heavily contributed to by them that should be addressed. Here are some of the ways smartphones can get more environmentally friendly in the long run:
While it might vary from phone to phone, on average about 85 percent of the environmental impact of a phone comes from the manufacturing process. This is why individual usage doesn’t matter so much and why individual action might not be enough to reduce their impact. If manufacturers waste less and use eco-friendly manufacturing methods when creating smartphones, the impact will be reduced greatly.
The only way a person can make an impact with their smartphone is to avoid getting a new one for some time. If people’s smartphones can last even one year longer without a feeling of obsolescence or a greater chance of them breaking, that would have a hugely beneficial impact on the environment. Manufacturers and developers, on their end, can make sure that smartphones last longer. Planned obsolescence is a plague on the environment in many ways, and the smartphone industry does work much differently.
If batteries improve and become longer-lasting and more efficient, one of the main reasons people replace their smartphones will be taken care of. Furthermore, on a smaller scale, less energy will be wasted, and every volt matters.
Cell phones, smartphones, and their related infrastructure take a lot of effort and energy to run. Think about the ongoing signals that need to be received and broadcast. Also, think of the energy and material costs of servers used in-app and website upkeep. Improving these structures and making them last longer will reduce overall energy and materials usage. This will reduce their impact on the environment.
Yet there might not be immediate profit to be seen in them, given their niche purposes. If people or governments support and encourage the development of these apps, they will see a great return in terms of the environment.
Something else we hope we made clear throughout this piece is that we are still learning about the effects of smartphones upon the environment, people, and more. They have only been around for perhaps a decade, and that’s not enough time to get a full picture. We do not know where smartphone technology is going in the long term, and we do not know what every developer is up to. Furthermore, we cannot know how governments and individuals will react to the ongoing climate crisis, despite whatever promises they make. The future will affect smartphones and their impact, and vice versa.
Smartphones are like any other piece of technology in that they can be great for the environment or may have some issues depending on how they are used. However, we are confident that they have had a net positive effect on things for the above reasons. There will likely never be a zero-impact phone, but they will get better over time and provide some great benefits to society at large. We hope that this article has given you some food for thought and that you might start changing your habits or outlooks as a result. Some changes have to come from the top-down, but living a more eco-friendly life has benefits in and of itself, and your relationship with your smartphone will improve for it.