How the circular economy could solve the smartphone-waste problem — and curb the manufacturing industry’s carbon footprint, too

Christen Martines | August 23, 2023, Freya Graham, June 30, 2023.

Do you remember your very first cellphone?

Where is it now? Maybe you passed it on to a friend, traded it in for an upgrade, or sold it. Maybe it’s still lurking somewhere in your home, abandoned in a drawer.

It takes a lot of resources to make a smartphone. It’s estimated that the production of a typical smartphone uses around 12,760 liters of water, which is equivalent to around 160 bathtubs full of water. The manufacturing process is energy-intensive, too, with the production of an average smartphone emitting 60 kilograms of carbon dioxide, according to Green Alliance, an independent think tank focused on environmental policy.

It’s not just smartphone manufacturing that has a big environmental impact. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, manufacturing is the third-largest contributor to US greenhouse-gas emissions, after transportation and electric power. The sector also accounts for 25% of the nation’s energy consumption.

More often than not, the products we consume have been made from newly extracted materials. The amount of resources that we extract has more than tripled since 1970, with global material consumption totaling more than 100 billion tons every year. But while consumption rates have shot up, recycling rates have remained low. Just 8.6% of the materials that we consume each year are recycled.

Could a circular economy make a difference?

Some industry leaders think there’s a solution for cutting down on waste and reducing greenhouse-gas emissions at the same time: the circular economy.

Try to visualize it. Right now, we have a linear system. We extract materials, make them into products, use the products, and then dispose of them. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation, a charity committed to creating a circular economy, calls this a “take-make-waste” system. Think back to your first cellphone: It’s probably at the “waste” stage right now.

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