The mobile revolution's hidden cost

As mobile phone sales pass the 3 billion mark, is it time to survey the full reality of the technology's environmental impact?

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 UK'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 per cent of the handset market, it's easy to argue that they need to take responsibility for at least 40 per cent 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 organisations. Ken graduated from Sussex University with donors 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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