Microprocessing

Owning Fewer Devices Isn’t Always Better for the Environment

Without repairable gadgets, device convergence won’t save the planet.

Photo illustration; sources via Getty Images: Wittaya Bunjua, Sanga Park, Sean Locke/EyeEm; Constantine Johnny/Moment

Loyal readers of Microprocessing may remember that, about a month ago, I bought an AlphaSmart Neo 2, a 2000s-era word processor with a small, six-line LCD screen. It does nothing but type. Though my experiment so far has been a successful one (the amount I am writing on this thing… folks, the difference is incredible), I feel a little bit guilty for relying on wasteful consumerism to help me get the job done.

Before I bought the Neo 2 I already had two devices — a laptop and a smartphone — that could have not only assisted me in writing a book, but also done the job of dozens of other gadgets they’ve replaced. I’ve been under the general impression that, all in all, fewer devices means a healthier environment. Several persuasive articles have made this very argument, including one in Wired that makes the case that this consolidation, known as “device convergence,” has helped “save the planet” through “dematerialization.” Six products in one means fewer products altogether, which means less consumerism, which means a lower demand for resources, less energy consumed, and a happier planet.

It’s a compelling and hopeful argument, and it made me feel worse about buying my AlphaSmart. It’s also probably not true. Despite the fact that one modern device can do the work of a dozen or more devices of yore, the iPhone is not saving the planet, according to numerous researchers I spoke to for this piece. It potentially could — and I’ll get to that in a moment — but right now, it doesn’t.

The diversity of products that have been shrunken into our smartphones or laptops is pretty astonishing. As historian Steve Cichon pointed out in a 2014 HuffPost piece, a 1991 RadioShack ad makes that consolidation incredibly clear. “There are 15 electronic gizmo type items on this page, being sold from America’s Technology Store. Thirteen of the 15 you now always have in your pocket,” he writes. The ad depicts a “phone answerer” ($49.95), a VHS camcorder ($799), a deluxe portable CD player ($159.95), an AM/FM clock radio ($13.88), and a “microthin calculator” ($4.88), among other products.

Photo: Steve Cichon/Buffalo Stories Archives

All of these items have been made pretty much obsolete by smartphones, which can, in one form or another, perform all those formerly disparate tasks. One might assume that since we no longer need a separate calculator, camera, clock, and “phone answerer,” we’re now consuming less, and thus, the environment is better off. Not so. Or, not exactly, anyway.

“There is no sign that we are using fewer resources because of the development of these new products [like smartphones]. Most production statistics show that increased amounts of resources are being extracted,” says Karen Hudson-Edwards, a professor in sustainable mining at the University of Exeter. “Predictions are that these increases will continue up to 2030 at least.”

Lotfi Belkhir, an associate professor of engineering practice at McMaster University in Ontario, says this is a topic that would benefit from a study directly comparing the life cycle impact of all these disparate devices to that of smartphones. (I’ve looked everywhere but was unable to find a study like this, which would be very complex and time-consuming, but not impossible.) Still, says Belkhir, “I don’t buy the idea that smartphone use has reduced the overall carbon footprint through consolidation.” The number of smartphone users is much larger than the usership of all those other products, he says — many people who may never have owned a digital camera or GPS likely own a smartphone. “So even in total number of devices alone, I think it’s safe to bet that the total number of smartphones alone today far exceeds the total number of those devices all combined.”

libi rose striegl, the manager of the Media Archeology Lab at the University of Colorado, Boulder, agrees that the number of people who own smartphones now is greater than the number of people who owned all these other objects in the past. “While in the past there were a bunch of individual devices for individual tasks, there were also fewer people owning each type of device, and each type of device was often treated as more of a luxury good than a daily necessity, was more repairable, and lasted longer,” she says. “For example, 34% of households in the U.S. owned a home computer in 1997, versus 73% of U.S. adults owning a desktop or laptop in 2015.” That doesn’t even account for people who have multiple computers, like me — I have my Dell laptop, two godforsaken MacBooks, plus however many computers my husband owns (a lot).

“People are very hesitant to recycle [their devices]. And that’s one of the big problems, because a lot of these products have life left,” says Callie Babbitt, an associate professor of sustainability at Rochester Institute of Technology. “Even though I might have replaced a digital camera with a smartphone, there may still be people that want a digital camera. If I took my old camera immediately and put it into a recycling stream, it has a high chance that it might get reused. But if I let it sit in my attic for five years, nobody’s gonna want that old clunker.”

Device hoarding is actually a big issue, and likely contributes to why convergence is having a limited positive impact on the environment. One U.K. survey from 2019 found that half of British families have at least one unused electronic device at home, while 45% had up to five of them; a 2014 study found similar numbers for Americans’ smartphones. Only 10% to 12% of American cellphones get recycled, while each day, 416,000 cellphones reach incinerators or landfills in the U.S. At the same time, most people replace their smartphone every 21 months. Since so many of us aren’t recycling or, even better, reselling our old device, we effectively treat a lot of perfectly good materials as disposable.

Meanwhile, the impact of our new devices is bad, and it’s getting worse. Belkhir, the McMaster University researcher, published a study in 2018 on the energy use of “ICT” (information and computer technologies) and found that the relative energy impact of these products has grown from 1% of the total global footprint of carbon emissions in 2007 to 3.5% by 2020, and by 2040, will reach 14%. Smartphones gobble up a majority of this energy consumption. His study found that, again, while product use certainly contributes to emissions — after all, the more we use our phones, the more energy they consume — most of its resource-guzzling stems from its creation. It’s a lot costlier to birth a smartphone than to use it later.

So, who’s to blame? You can certainly fault consumers for Earth-killing wanton materialism, but the party that bears the most responsibility is manufacturers, who are quite purposefully creating products that need to be replaced often and are difficult to fix. “Manufacturing electronic products has a huge environmental impact,” says Babbitt. “The chips that are using these products are very energy and water and resource intense. But if you use the product for long enough, you’re able to see those energy efficiency gains stack up, then it could potentially offset it.”

Between 85% and 95% of a phone’s total carbon emissions occur during its creation. If we could easily repair our phones and thus keep them for 10 years before replacing, the impact of those initial carbon emissions would begin to recede. But when we replace our phone with every other release, we’re doubling down on the most environmentally damaging part of the device’s life.

This wasn’t always the case. When I was in high school, my mom gave me her old Pentax camera from the ’80s, and it still worked. I have a typewriter from the ’70s that, once a single sticky key is fixed, will run as well as ever.

“We’ve documented over the years that consideration about the environment and human health often comes after the economic and consumer preferences in terms of providing functionality,” says Oladele Ogunseitan, a professor of public health at the University of California, Irvine, and co-chair of Apple’s Green Chemistry Advisory Board. A new smartphone might be marginally sharper and faster than the one I bought two years ago, but at what cost?

My AlphaSmart, meanwhile, is as good as it was in 2007, and in all likelihood will still be performing its simple task to the best of its ability 10 years from now, absent any unfortunate disasters or meltdowns. By then, my iPhone XR will be a distant memory, replaced by several newer, shinier, somewhat better models, each one leaving a trail of used-up resources in its wake.

I’m a columnist for OneZero, where I write about the intersection of health & tech. Also seen at Elemental, The Atlantic, VICE, and Vox. Brooklyn, NY.

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