The Mobile Revolution's Hidden Cost

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Late last year, the mobile phone industry passed a remarkable milestone, one that not so many years ago it didn't even expect to reach. Media sites and blogs around the world buzzed as the news was announced with equal measures of excitement, amazement and, in some cases, guarded jealousy. We'll never know who it was, or where it was, but on that day someone, somewhere bought a mobile phone and tipped global sales past the three billion mark. "More than half the world's population now own a phone" was a typical headline.

Of course, this isn't strictly true. For a start, we don't know exactly how many people live on our crowded little planet, and increasing numbers of people own more than one phone. But, nevertheless, it was a remarkable achievement for an industry still so relatively young and one that never really expected the kind of boom we're experiencing today. Adoption of these devices, which were originally the exclusive playthings of business people and the better-off, has indeed been breathtaking. To give you some idea, in the time it's taken you to read this paragraph, another 3,000 or 4,000 phones will have been sold. Nokia alone is reported to sell in the region of 17 phones per second.

When numbers become so large, the reality behind them becomes increasingly difficult to comprehend. For me, global mobile sales passed that point a long time before this recent milestone was reached, and trying to picture what anything like 3 billion of the things might look like is mission impossible. There is little doubt that mobile phones are proving incredibly empowering, and I spend a lot of my time studying their impact in the developing world. We're familiar with the stories on how mobiles will solve that "inconvenient little problem" more commonly known as the digital divide. Mobile technology has indeed revolutionized many aspects of life in the developing world, where the number of mobile connections almost universally overtook the number of fixed lines in the blink of an eye (which is why they're regularly referred to as a "leapfrogging technology"). If further evidence were needed, increasing bodies of research are pointing to mobile penetration as having a strong positive impact on GDP, and for many people, their first telephone call will be on a mobile.

Despite the many incredible things happening around the world, one thing that continues to trouble me is the environmental impact of the number of mobile phones being manufactured, consumed and, in some cases, dumped.

Let's face it: 3 billion phones represent a lot of plastic. Fortunately, recycling plans have become increasingly popular in recent years, with the nonprofit sector leading the way with a wide range of initiatives, and companies such as Fonebak making a tidy profit cleaning up after everyone's left the party.

Last year, in "Running the Numbers: An American Self-Portrait," Chris Jordan set out to examine modern American culture through what he described as the "austere lens of statistics." One of his most striking images shows just short of half-a-million mobile phones in a not-so-little pile. The picture alone is staggering, but the fact that this represents the number of mobiles ditched daily in the U.S. is even more so.

If not handled sensibly, mobile phones have the potential to deliver negative environmental impacts -- and in some cases social ones -- almost all the way along their supply chain. The raw material alone needed to produce 3 billion phones is far from insignificant. Essential ingredients such as coltan, which can be mined by hand and is in plentiful supply in places like the Democratic Republic of Congo, has been blamed for helping fuel the civil war, increasing child labor rates, fostering illegal encroachment into national parks and the deaths of endangered gorillas. Once you have the ingredients, there is the shear amount of energy required in the manufacturing process and concerns about the working conditions in the factories. And, at the end of all that, there is the carbon emitted in shipping the finished products, usually by air.

Once mobiles are in the hands of their new owners, they are likely to be recharged several hundred times before they are sold or thrown in a drawer. This carries an environmental cost unless they are being charged by a renewable energy source. Even the presence of mobile phone towers, without which mobiles become little more than expensive paperweights, have been linked to everything from human health scares to the killing of the U.K.'s already declining sparrow population, the subject of my first report for Vodafone in late 2002. In case you are interested, evidence was inconclusive but quite convincing.

At the end of its life -- if you consider a phone no longer "up to the job" after a year or two, as evidence in the developed world would seem to suggest -- then heaven would be a handset recycling plan and hell a landfill site. Mobiles that do end up in the ground have the potential to come back to haunt the owner, and millions of other people, as toxic chemicals slowly seep out into the natural environment. A single lithium-ion battery has the potential to contaminate up to 600,000 liters of groundwater. When you think of how many mobile phones are dumped each day, and how many potentially end up as landfill, the consequences for humans alone don't even bare thinking about.

Thankfully, companies such as Nokia are already onto some of these things, designing environmentally friendly handsets made from recycled materials, although these handsets remain on the drawing board for now. With almost 40 percent of the handset market, it's easy to argue that they need to take responsibility for at least 40 percent of the problem.

Although accurate figures are hard -- if not impossible -- to come by, the environmental cost of producing hundreds of millions of handsets a year shouldn't be underestimated. Unfortunately, it's a subject that for many is largely ignored, and I -- like many other people -- don't have any easy answers. I wish I did; the question comes up often during my various talks and conference presentations. But I do believe it's important that as consumers, customers and messengers for the industry, we at least remain aware of the issues and don't just stick our heads in the sand. Our love affair with the mobile phone is just one of many "consumptions" taking hold in the world, as Chris Jordan's wider exhibition so vividly shows. Curbing our demand for newer and newer handsets is just a small part of a much wider problem.

And, right now, no one has any answers to that either.

Ken Banks devotes himself to the application of mobile technology for positive social and environmental change in the developing world, and has spent the last 15 years working on projects in Africa. Recently, his research resulted in the development of FrontlineSMS, a field communication system designed to empower grassroots non-profit organizations. Ken graduated from Sussex University with honors in Social Anthropology with Development Studies and currently divides his time between Cambridge (UK) and Stanford University in California on a MacArthur Foundation-funded fellowship. Further details of Ken's wider work are available on his Web site.

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