Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) of a Smartphone

Published on 11.09.2022
Middle School

5 min read

Product life cycle assessments (LCAs) in 8 images. Find out how the of a smartphone is assessed, right from the extraction of the raw materials used to make one!

1. What is the LCA of a phone?

A is a method used to evaluate a product’s environmental and energy impact, from its manufacture through to use and end of life. Here, we take a look at the life cycle of a cellphone.

2. A Must-Have Across the Globe

Cellphones with Internet access, or smartphones, are now an essential item the world over, including in less developed countries. Since 2016, nearly 1.5 billion smartphones have been sold every year (compared with 300 million in 2010). In France, sales tripled during this time, soaring from 6.8 million in 2010 to more than 20 million in 2016. The total number of personal connected devices (cellphones, tablets, GPS systems, watches, etc.) used worldwide could exceed 25 billion in 2025.

3. Step 1 of the Life Cycle: Manufacture

One cellphone is made up of more than 60 materials. This includes plastics and glass, but also a huge variety of metals, from copper to aluminum, chrome, zinc, tin, and precious metals such as gold, silver and platinum. Phones also contain “rare earths” such as tantalum, europium and indium, as well as cobalt and lithium, which are used in phone batteries. Extracting these metals is very and generates a lot of pollution. Many of the mines are in China, and result in miles of ravaged, contaminated land (see photo). Then, the raw materials have to be transported, processed and assembled. This stage accounts for around 80% of all the energy consumed and CO2 emitted during the production of a phone. 

4. Step 2 of the Life Cycle: Distribution

Once they’ve been produced, the cellphones have to be transported to consumers. This means taking into account the used by cargo planes, merchant ships, trucks and vans. The distribution stage also involves factoring in the impact from the production of packaging, which has to go through all the same steps (raw materials, manufacture and transportation). But the impact from each phone is still negligible when comparing their weight with the gigantic size of the container ships used to transport them.

5. Step 3 of the Life Cycle:

Very little is required to charge a cellphone. For one charge per day, the annual consumption is estimated at between 3.5 and 7 kilowatt-hours. At French electricity prices, that represents less than €1 a year! However, there is some hidden power consumption, paid by users via their phone plans and the purchase of their devices: the use of Internet networks and the data centers that process all those gigabytes. An hour of video streaming on a cellphone not connected to Wi-Fi can consume up to 1 kilowatt-hour of electricity, while sending 100 emails with attachments uses around 2.5 kilowatt-hours. Then, there are live games and apps – in 2019, for example, 204 billion apps were downloaded worldwide. A heavily used cellphone can indirectly consume as much power as a refrigerator over a year, or around 300 kilowatt-hours.

6. Overall Impact

Given the billions of cellphone users, the figures are staggering. Information and communication technologies (ICT), which are not limited to cellphones, are thought to take up between 4% and 10% of electricity consumed worldwide (although experts disagree on how to calculate just how much). Thanks to technological progress, phones, networks and data centers are becoming more and more efficient. But, although new models of cellphones guzzle less energy during use, their manufacture has a greater environmental impact than before. They require more rare metals and are more complex to assemble – so the advantages gained on the one hand are canceled out by the losses on the other. That’s why life cycle assessments are so important. 

7. Step 4 of the Life Cycle: End of Life

is particularly useful for smartphones. They are full of precious materials that can be recovered, with varying levels of difficulty, to produce other electronic devices. The plastic and glass can also be reused. However, only a small proportion of devices (16% in France) are recycled. After an average of two years of use (which is very brief), many cellphones are relegated to the back of a drawer. Others end up in “parallel” (often illegal) channels, where they are refurbished and resold.

8. What Is the Environmental Footprint of a Cellphone?

The manufacturing phase (extraction of materials and assembly) has the greatest environmental impact throughout a cellphone’s life cycle. According to figures from Apple, an iPhone 6 emits the equivalent of 95 kilograms of greenhouse gases from cradle to grave: 11% during use, 85% during manufacture, and the rest during transportation and recycling. You would need to keep the same phone for four or five years for its use to outweigh the impact of production. But in reality, that’s not the case: the average period of use is around two years. 

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