Mobile phones and the hidden environmental cost

How much is it costing us?

The world’s first mobile phone call was made on 3 April 1973. It took around 25 years for mobiles to become affordable and enter the mainstream. Nowadays we can’t imagine life without them.

Few other technologies have had such a massive impact on our lives and the global economy. There are now more phones than people on Earth and analysts estimate that the industry is not slowing down anytime soon.

We have become reliant on the easy communication provided by mobiles and many of us are addicted to the data and entertainment these devices deliver so easily.

Everything comes at a cost

So how much are our beloved gadgets costing our environment?

According to experts, quite a lot. Seven years ago, global mobile usage was estimated to be over 125 million tons CO2 per year (13,199,578 homes energy use for one year). This was when there were around 2.9bn phones on the planet. This number is much larger today. Producing a single smartphone also requires over 13 tons of water and 18 square meters of land.

Furthermore, mobile phones contain a range of substances that are harmful if devices are not disposed of properly. Heavy metals such as mercury, lead and cadmium are present, as well as brominated flame retardants in the devices’ printed circuit boards and casings. All of these can have a devastating impact if released into the environment.

An important concern for environmental specialists is that many people own several phones and sooner or later at least one of them might not be disposed of in a safe manner for the environment.

Each year, 130m mobile devices are discarded but only 20 per cent are reused or properly recycled and a significant number turn up in landfills.

In the UK alone 14m people use a second phone. Considering that 15 million mobile phones are also upgraded in the UK each year, the environmental impact needs to be assessed and ways to mitigate this must be found soon.

Most people use two phones because one is for work and one for personal use. Businesses encourage this practice because it gives them a clear understanding of billing and expenses and they can maintain control of employee communication and data.

The downside of this system, besides the obvious ecological effect, is that employees remain connected to their work and open to customers’ and colleagues’ enquiries 24/7, even when on holiday. This leads to an unstable work-life balance and potentially to burnout.

Solutions?

So what can companies do, both to avoid public backlash on their environmental footprints when concerning mobiles while also helping employees to improve their wellbeing and disconnect from work when they need to?

From an environmental perspective, a potential solution would be to create an internal recycling programme that ensures all unused phones are recycled in a responsible, environmentally friendly manner.

Another avenue is to extend phones’ lives and upgrade them less frequently. At the moment smartphones are changed or upgraded on a yearly basis but using the same phone for two years would generate a 20 per cent reduction in the environmental impact.

There is also the option for using smart communications technology to combine two phone numbers on one phone.

Users can now choose innovative apps that enable them to manage both work and personal calls on just one device. These apps don’t require a second SIM or long term contracts and customers can easily differentiate work calls from personal ones.

Besides helping individuals and companies to reduce their carbon footprints, such apps also help with achieving a healthier work-life balance. Users can switch off their work phone numbers when they need to disconnect and also set up personalised voicemails that provide clear details about when the user is available, and when the caller can expect to receive an answer to their query. This sets clear expectations and helps users manage client relationships with professionalism.

Some of these solutions can also transcribe voicemails enabling users to easily assess the urgency of each request and prioritise accordingly.

The billing aspect is also simple to manage by submitting an app receipt as an expense. Some apps also offer a portal that centralises billing and management of all numbers.

Considering all these aspect, more companies should consider if secondary phones are really needed. By using alternative solutions, they not only reduce their carbon footprint generated by mobile phones and protect our environment, but could also make significant savings in both time and resources.

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