VOICE: The Life of Your Smartphone



Sustainable technology. They are not two words that you typically hear together but they should be. With a rapidly growing and changing tech market, the environmental, economic and social impacts of our products need to be taken into consideration. We can do this by researching the ‘after-life’ of our used tech and engaging in programs like #CycleMyCell from the Jane Goodall Institute.


Roughly 36% of the world is connected by smartphones, growing from 170 million smartphones sold worldwide in 2009 to 1.4 billion in 2015, to 2.7 billion by 2019. It’s estimated that the number of mobile phone users in the world will surpass 5 billion in 2019, an estimated 62.9% of the world’s population.

The first iPhone was released in 2007 and in a span of 11 years, there have been a total of 20 models released. Since 2010 Samsung has released 35 different models within 8 years of their Galaxy S series alone. If this alone isn’t shocking enough, it can be even more frightening to realize that consumers will often replace their existing devices as newer models are released, rather than keeping them for their entire lifespan.

Surprised? You may be reading this on your phone right now. But what’s the big deal? Well, the sustainability issues surrounding the tech market do not just start and stop with the number of phones produced and discarded. It also has to do with the materials within them and the environmental and social impact they have.


In the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), large areas are being mined for minerals used in the production of tech devices, but these mining activities are not always done in sustainable or ethical ways. Dubbed ‘conflict minerals’, tantalum (coltan), tin, gold, and tungsten have been found to be sourced from unethical conditions. Often, the profit from selling such minerals, mined from conditions of slavery and child labour, can fuel and finance violence and conflicts.

Despite some laws, regulation on the use of conflict minerals in our everyday devices (cellphones, laptops, speakers, etc.) remains lofty. And without proper awareness, consumers often feed into unsustainable and unethical mining practices.

Electronic waste or e-waste is waste created from everything discarded that is electronic on our planet. This might seem like an obvious definition but in the last two decades, the exporting and importing of electronic waste has become a large part of global trade. Often, countries in the Global North will export and dispose of their e-waste to countries in the Global South. This practice is often cheaper, sending e-waste in bulk, rather than properly recycling it in its ‘original’ country. It may be economically cheaper but the environmental and social cost is much higher and are ultimately irreversible.

In shipping e-waste, the duty of breaking it all down falls to the citizens of the receiving country. This is often seen as an economic opportunity. Agbogbloshie, located in Accra, the capital of Ghana, is the world’s largest e-dump. In 2015, it was reported that more than 215,000 tonnes of e-waste had been received. Citizens often make money from breaking down the electronics but with only $1 – $2.50/day, they often turn to unsustainable practices like burning entire swaths of devices in order to fish out the metal used to sell back. It is not uncommon to see children as young as 12 participating in these practices and residents of the Old Fadama slum next to Agbogbloshie are continuously exposed to harmful air pollutants and smoke.

In a way, this is e-waste trade is a way of recycling but it’s short term and long term effects are unsustainable and unethical, often fed by consumerism the Global North is taking part in.


With no signs of tech development slowing down, the next step is exploring alternative methods to these sustainability and ethical challenges.

With challenges like conflict minerals and e-waste, the debate of how to take action can sometimes be challenging. Some might defend the practices by saying “they’re getting a job out of it” or “I don’t see how this affects me”. But, as we know, the economic, social, and environmental impacts of these practices are not just felt by one population. They affect every global citizen – a lack of awareness perpetuates the consumption of unsustainable products; the improper discarding of devices results in often irreversible environmental damage, and the economic trade used often takes advantage of those who are already disadvantaged.

So how can we change this?

Return to the Take Action blog tomorrow for a special look at the Jane Goodall Institute of Canada’s Roots & Shoots’ #CycleMyCell program and how it connects to the Grade 12 Global Issues course!


Written by: Keana Rellinger

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