Mobile Phone Contracts May be Risking the Environment with Metal Pollution

First Posted: Jun 08, 2015 08:43 AM EDT

When it comes to mobile phones, the environment may be in trouble. Scientists have called for an overhaul in the way mobile devices are manufactured and contracted in order to stop harmful effects on the environment caused by the current business model.

In this latest study, the researchers focused on the lifespan of mobile devices, from manufacture, use and disposal to see what impact each stage had on the environment. Through their investigation, they found that the current mobile business model, driven by frequent upgrades, is costing both the manufacturer and the environment.

There are an estimated 85 million unused phones in the UK," said James Suckling, the lead author of the new study, in a news release. "Each of these phones has been manufactured using precious metals such as gold, copper and silver which are costly to extract, both in cash-terms and environmental impact. These unused phones contain approximately 4 tons of gold, lost resource that would cost 110 million pounds and an equivalent of 84,000 tons of CO2 released into the atmosphere to replace."

Because their findings reveal that there is such waste, the researchers propose a cloud-based product service system, where the heavy processing and memory storage of mobile devices are moved to a remote server, over the internet. Without the need for complex processing, mobile devices could become less complex, designed to last longer and requiring less precious resources to make. Together with a "take-back"clause in the mobile service contract, researchers believe that consumers would be encouraged to retain their device for longer and return it to the manufacturer at the end of the service contract.

"This is a model that has been used already," said Suckling. "Replacing power hungry desktop PCs with thin client computers that run off cloud services, with less hardware, reduced power consumption by up to 55 percent," said Suckling. "There are of course other challenges to overcome. Our research team is now looking at how to implement such business models while convincing consumers that cloud services can be trusted to deliver services, and hold data privately and securely. This will be one important focus for our continuing research, as will be understanding the wider impacts of the mobile lifecycle on the environment and what impact new business models will have on this cycle."

The findings are published in the International Journal of Life Cycle Assessment.

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