Walk down any shopping centre and busy mobile phones stores are everywhere. Yet the first hand-held mobile phone reportedly only appeared in 1973, a ‘brick’ weighing about 1 kg. Now it is calculated that six out of 10 people worldwide have a mobile phone subscription. By the end of next year 6 billion people could own one. Soon there will be more phones than people.
The benefits of mobile growth are huge, not only for our social or business life in the UK, but in developing countries who often lack a landline service, it enables remote businesses to buy and sell or farmers to check on the best prices for their produce. It also often is the basis for many a roadside ‘mobile phone booth’ business and the infrastructure also contributes to growing computer connectivity.
There are however, ethical concerns about mobile phones, particularly in the sourcing of some their components. A new documentary film Blood in the Mobile from Danish director Frank Poulsen recently shown in the Bath Film Festival raises concerns about the mining of minerals sourced in the Congo, a region where conflict has claimed at least 5.4 million lives. The US based Enough project and Global Witness also highlight these issues.
The ‘Conflict minerals’ involved are gold and the 3Ts – tungsten, tin and tantalum. Tungsten makes your phone vibrate; tantalum enables it to be made smaller.
Right now there aren’t any guaranteed conflict-free phones. Consumers need to ask their providers about the sourcing of their materials. It is important that companies do not just abandon such sources as the Congo, sourcing minerals from elsewhere. Boycotting could just puts artisanal miners out of work – we need their conditions to be rectified and some kind of consumer label to indicate that particular phones are derived from ethical sources.
There is a Greenpeace guide to greener electronics, which ranks the 18 top manufacturers of personal computers, mobile phones, TVs and games consoles according to their policies on toxic chemicals, recycling and climate change. Greener IT choices. You can also check out What’s the greenest mobile phone on the market?
The other area I would raise is the issue of recycling. Mobile phones contain many potentially toxic materials, which can leak out into the environment through landfill or incineration. According to EMC, specialists in mobile phone recovery, users on average replace mobiles every 11 months. They state it is estimated that up to 90 million mobile phones are discarded in drawers and cupboards across the UK – these weigh 11,250 tonnes, the equivalent to more than 30 Boeing 747s!
They are a hazard if discarded and if they are recycled they are worth cash or can be put to very good use. Some cell phones and their accessories contain substances that are amongst the 10 most dangerous known to mankind including Cadmium, Rhodium, Palladium, Beryllium and Lead Solder, others include Brominated Flame Retardants (BFRs) which, according to Greenpeace, traces of BFRs have been found in polar bears, whales, and human breast milk.
Long-term exposure may damage the nervous, reproductive, and endocrine systems.
The situation is improving since the EU directives on the restriction of Hazardous Substances and the Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) which sets rules for the use and recycling of electronic products. To comply with the WEEE directive, all companies should ensure that all mobile phones were recycled. The detailed terms are more complicated than this, however, and interested parties (producers and suppliers especially) should look to the ICER site. Consumers do also have a vital role to play in this, many phones out there are toxic and many are just thrown away.
There are now hundreds of recycling specialists in this country, who collect or receive obsolete and waste electrical and electronic equipment – including mobile phones. Please ensure that all SIM cards are removed. Charities including Oxfam and Wateraid raise big sums for their work via donated mobile phones and are pleased to accept them. Recycled with Oxfam, two working mobile phones could provide eight schoolbooks.
The shops on your street may have a story to tell – your questions and buying choices could help it be an ethical one.