how much does a smartphone really weigh?

Over the course of ten years, the “intelligent” telephone has been democratized so that it has become a common everyday object. But do we really measure the amount of resources needed to produce these handhelds?

He accompanies you all day, often makes your life easier, maybe you read this article thanks to him. But do you really know what it is made of? Since its inception in the mobile phone market in the second half of the 2000s, the touchscreen smartphone that allows you to make calls but also to surf the internet, take pictures or use countless connected applications has been imposed as a matter of course in our lives. –

Making a smartphone requires water equivalent to 10,000 packs of 6 x 1.5 L bottles

According to data collected for NegaOctet, the production of 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 is partly dependent on very limited resources. “We have only 30 years of digital technology left in front of us,” warns Frédéric Bordage. With the speed at which we use these resources, the stocks of the various materials used to make smartphones and many other high-tech objects will be empty for 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 soil extracted from the soil

Inside a multifunction car, we find carbon in the form of petroleum (converted into plastic for the shell), silicon (of which the glass of the pane is made), lithium and cobalt (which make up most of the battery), but also a host 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 that are essential for the operation of the machine.

Upstream of mixing, the extraction of these substances is therefore a significant step whose environmental costs are far from insignificant. “To produce a 300 g smartphone, we needed 237 kg of raw materials, and to get this amount of raw materials we had to extract 5.3 tons of soil”, explains Frédéric Bordage, founder of the GreenIT collective, who especially contributed to NegaOctet database and for 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 ubiquity: in 2021, 77% of the French population (including 94% of 15-29 year olds!) Owned at least one smartphone. But if its lightness, its sleek appearance and its ease of use have greatly contributed to its dazzling success, these properties are misleading: a high-tech object, a real pocket computer, the “smart” phone is the result of industrial processes such as. heavy than complex.

As a user, it would be wrong to think that a smartphone’s ecological footprint is reduced to the electricity consumed to recharge it. Conversely, the manufacturing phase is by far the one that generates the most environmental impact, as evidenced by the work carried out by several independent researchers as part of the NegaOctet project, whose goal is to assess and improve “the environmental performance of digital services”. ”.

52 different drugs in a “smart” phone

In order to better measure the ecological weight of smartphones, the researchers used the life cycle analysis method (LCA), which takes into account the use phase, but also the earlier stages (manufacturing, distribution) and later (recycling, end of life)). For each of the seven indicators examined (ranging from water consumption to the amount of CO2 released that passes through the fossil and non-fossil resources used), the result is clear: between 60 and 100% of the ecological impacts come from the Manufacturing phase.

In order to achieve a jewel of miniaturized technology like the smartphone, it is actually necessary to implement mountains of effort and already gather a certain number of raw materials for the manufacture of the various elements (screen and glass, shell, battery, motherboard, integrated circuits, etc) . According to an animation published in 2017 by the association SystExt, which specializes in research into extraction systems, there are no less than 52 different substances in a standard smartphone in the middle class (metals, minerals or liquids), corresponding to as many elements on Mendeleev’s famous the periodic system.

“We have only 30 years of digital technology left in front of us”

“If we consider digital as a valuable resource, we should save it today,” said the founder of GreenIT. “There is a problem for our children. We are not talking about future generations, but about what is already here. The children , who are on Earth today will experience the end of the digital age in their lifetime. ” After adopting it as a standard for a few decades, to the point of “dematerializing” a certain number of administrative procedures, for example, should the West and humanity as a whole learn to live without the digital tool?

As it stands, the danger is in any case accentuated by the impossibility of reducing the impacts of the manufacture of smartphones, because “industrial processes do not know how to do it better today”, assures Frédéric Bordage. At the other end of the smartphone life cycle, recycling does not seem to be a viable option. “We can recycle 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 that can allow you, for example, to change the battery yourself and make the phone last. Warranty periods of 2 to 5 years.The other big problem, extending the total useful life of the product, is recycling.This does not necessarily mean that one should keep the same smartphone as long as possible, but rather to make sure when changing it, to give it another life by selling it to a repairman, who will then redistribute it.

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