The Benefits of Easily Repairable Smartphones

Repair or buy?

Key Takeaways

  • The carbon footprint left behind by smartphone manufacturers is immense.
  • Yearly device releases and hard-to-repair phones only increase the size of that footprint.
  • Making smartphones more repairable could help manufacturers slow down production and decrease device waste.
A man repairs cell phones in Bouya, Cameroon
Ann Johansson / Corbis / Getty Images

The effects of the smartphone industry on the environment continue to grow, but a recent teardown of the Samsung Galaxy S21 could point us towards a brighter, greener future.

As smartphones have gotten smaller, internal hardware has become more compact, oftentimes leading to pieces being fused together or glued in place. This means more costly repairs, which could make people just buy a new phone instead, thereby causing old phones to be thrown away. iFixit’s teardown of Samsung’s latest smartphone, however, reveals a more easily repairable device.

"Over 150 million phones are thrown away each year, in the US alone," Omkar Dharmapuri, founder of Tech Lurn said via an email interview with Lifewire. "People demand the newest and the best and are more inclined to throw a broken phone away instead of repairing it."

Growing Concerns

Replacing your smartphone every two years has become the norm, especially as big companies push out new devices every year. While it’s nice to have new technology releasing at such a rapid pace, there is a cost behind it all.

In 2014, Lotfi Belkhir, an associate professor at McMaster University's Walter G. Booth School of Engineering Practice and Technology, was approached by a student about software sustainability. This sparked a study by Belkhir and Ahmed Elmeligi, co-founder of Healthcare Innovation in NeuroTechnology (HiNT). 

In the study, Belkhir and Elmeligi inspected the carbon footprint of consumer devices like smartphones, laptops, tablets, and even desktops and data centers. The findings of this study originally were published in 2018 in the Journal of Cleaner Production, where the two detailed the growing concerns they had about the footprint being left behind by the growth of information and communications technology (ICT).

The two found that ICT has a greater impact on emissions than originally was thought, and even stated that trends suggested the damage to the environment by smartphones would be higher than any other ICT-related technology by 2020. Smartphones are smaller and, in most cases, use less energy than traditional desktop electronics, but the study found that nearly 85% of a smartphone's impact on the environment came from its production.

That last bit of information is especially important, as we have seen major manufacturers like Apple and Samsung continue to release new smartphone models every year. 

"The environmental footprint of the smartphone industry is one of the most intensive because the manufacturing of smartphones uses a lot of resources," Dharmapuri said in our email interview. "On top of that, mobile phone manufacturers are competing with each other more than ever, resulting in more pressure on the ecosystem."

The Solution

Some manufacturers already have taken steps to lessen the costs of making new phones, but there’s still more that can be done.

A good next step is to make smartphones more easily repairable. The hardware included in a phone is made of precious resources taken from the planet. While some of these resources—like the silicon used in many internal pieces—are plentiful, others, like hafnium, are rarer than gold. 

An article posted to Engineering.com breaks down the raw materials used to make the hardware in those devices. While the process may have changed since its publishing, it still gives a good idea of just how much damage producing new devices can do to the planet.

"A way to work against the damaging influence of smartphone manufacturing is by making it more affordable and attractive to repair," Dharmapuri said via email. "Mobile phone companies could include policies where they repair phones or upgrade them for less money, rather than encouraging people to buy a new phone every year after its release."

Having the newest device can be cool, and a lot of advancements have been made over the years. But, ultimately, the price we’re paying to have the latest gadget isn’t worth it, and smartphone companies need to step up and do more to help lessen the impact they’re having on the environment.

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