Earth Day is an excellent reminder to take stock of everything we do that can adversely affect the world around us. There are massive impacts to be seen just by focusing on electronics and personal technology — the products we increasingly can't live without nowadays.
Having a smartphone with internet access has become one of those things that is not just nice to have, but completely essential to participating in modern society. So it stands to reason that keeping up with the times and regularly upgrading to a new smartphone is just part of the deal. But as we know, or should know, making smartphones has a considerable impact on the environment.
Electronics companies have thankfully started to take environmental stewardship seriously, with many changes big and small that all make the process of creating and selling a smartphone better for the environment than in the past. But the thing is, no matter what phone you choose to buy, it's never as environmentally friendly as keeping the phone you have.
Even if the new phone you want to buy uses recycled packaging, some recycled metals and plastics, and is made by a company that uses cleaner energy or purchases carbon offsets for its production, it's all still completely unnecessary and wasteful compared to not buying a new phone at all. There's an environmental cost to purchasing a brand new smartphone no matter the weight of specific variables of how it's made, and you can't get around that.
I know this take is utterly counterintuitive to being in a position of working for a family of websites that regularly promotes all of the new technology and helps people make decisions as to whether new phones are worthwhile upgrades. But the reality is that people do need new phones — and we still need to serve that audience. But we can also do so while understanding the environmental consequences, and what our options are for reducing our footprint — individually and collectively.
If you need a new phone, or just want to upgrade to a newer model, the next-best thing you can do environmentally is buy a used or refurbished phone. Every used phone you buy is not only removing the need for a new one to be made, but also keeping that phone from making its way to a landfill. Despite our collective efforts, an astonishing amount of electronics are simply thrown in the trash rather than recycled, and extending the lifespan of each phone has a noticeable impact on the amount of e-waste generated. To keep the cycle going, when you do buy a used or refurbished phone, make sure you recycle or sell your old one rather than just throw it out.
Due to a number of factors, we've seen smartphone upgrade cycles actually get longer in the past five years despite incredible advancements in smartphone technology and capabilities. People are keeping their phones for nearly three years on average now. Even if this longer upgrade cycle is driven by peaking technology or higher prices rather than by a desire to help the environment, this is a very good thing as far as the environment is concerned. Everyone that cares about the use of natural resources and our planet can appreciate that — and this is one way you can help.
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Andrew was an Executive Editor, U.S. at Android Central between 2012 and 2020.