Life Cycle of Mobile Phones

Mobile phones have become one of the more unsustainable consumer goods. In 2015, more than 1.5 billion new mobile phones were shipped worldwide, often replacing fully functional phones.

In the next five years, an additional one billion people are estimated to become mobile phone subscribers. The smartphone adoption rate is already at 60 per cent in the developed world and will lead smartphone growth over the next five years as the average selling price of smartphones continues to decline. This is estimated to add a further 2.9 billion smartphone connections by 2020.

Yet, the average lifespan of a mobile phone has decreased significantly. The rapid evolution of mobile technology, supported by marketing and promotion campaigns, is making mobile phones prematurely obsolete and transforming the device into a disposable product. The mobile phone industry is an extremely competitive and litigious sector, and it is associated with conflict minerals, labour rights issues and unsustainable e-waste practices.

The high tech electronics sector is characterised by a global value chain that integrates the economies of developing countries to the European economy through the lifecycle of high-tech products. In order to understand the challenges to policy coherence for development, arising from trade and finance activities, it is important to understand the environmental and social externalities that occur in these product lifecycles and how they are maintained.

Mobile phones have global supply chains, which often start in a developing country such as DR Congo, Rwanda, Tanzania, and Uganda. These countries provide the raw materials, which after processing in Malaysia are used in the manufacturing of mobile phones in China and Vietnam. The disposal or recycling of mobile phones also takes place developing countries. Nigeria and Ghana are the largest ports in Africa for the import of e-waste. The unsustainable disposal and recycling of e-waste has important social and environmental consequences. There is also significant illegal trade in e-waste, which is linked with organised crime . According to ILO, 80 per cent of the e-waste from developed countries ends up in developing countries such as Ghana, Nigeria, India, and China.

Our research takes a life cycle approach to mobile phones: from conception as technology design to the mining of minerals in Africa and South America to make its materials; from the manufacturing sites in Asia to mobile phone use in Europe; and finally from repair, recycling and discarding.