Send your question to Umbra!

Q. Have you thought about doing a review of cellphones for environmentalists? I’d love to know a) what the environmental impact is, and b) which phone does the least damage in terms of both materials and energy use.

Peter W.

banana phone
Shutterstock

A. Dearest Peter,

Finally, an easy question! The greenest cellphone is no cellphone at all. I think I may just close up shop early today and browse my favorite vintage shops for a new cardigan.

Just kidding, of course. Though it’s true that you would be sidestepping the resource-intensive, landfill-clogging problems associated with cellphones by just not buying one, good luck with that in the real world. Like it or not (and put me in the not column), the mighty mobile has spread far and wide: According to the latest from the Pew Research Center, a whopping 91 percent of U.S. adults own a cellphone, with 56 percent of us opting for smartphones. And more than a third of our households are now wireless-only. Resistance may not be futile, but it is tough.

But there’s an environmental impact to everything, Peter, including smoke signals (think of the carbon!). For cellphones, the issues start with the mining required to extract the building blocks of the circuit board: copper, lead, gold, nickel, zinc, beryllium, and many more. Extracting these resources is difficult, requiring lots of energy and chemicals to separate them from rock, which can then seep into nearby rivers and streams. And it’s only getting worse as demand for these rare earth elements (not all that rare, by the way) surges to power other electronics, including electric cars and solar panels. And don’t forget all that plastic.

Once the cellphone makes it into your hands, its greedy charger will suck electricity throughout its life, which for the average American, is far too short: only 18 months, thanks to frequent, irresistible upgrade offers from providers. And after it hits the landfill as e-waste — only 8 percent of mobile phones were recycled in 2009 — all those toxic metals (did I forget to mention lithium, cadmium, and mercury?) can seep into groundwater or build up in soil, and from there, the food chain. Not a pretty picture, is it?

Thankfully, we as “consumers” (as the “producers” like to call us) can mitigate some of the damage. The best choice is not to consume at all: The best choice is not to consume at all: Yes, the greenest cell phone (aside from no phone at all) is the one you already have. You’ve heard me say this before, but using your possessions to their fullest, rather than jumping on the next shiny gadget trotted out to market, reduces the need to produce new ones. If that doesn’t work, the next-greenest choice is a used phone. Wireless providers often sell older models as certified, pre-owned devices, and there’s always Craigslist.

But should the need for a new phone arise, Peter, know that not all mobiles are created equal. According to Greenpeace’s 2012 Guide to Greener Electronics, HP takes the top spot among cellphone producers. Hold the standing ovation — HP still only ranks a 5.7 out of 10, the kind of grade that would have earned a stern talking-to in the Fisk household, had I ever brought one home — but it leads the pack. Nokia also fared comparatively well, rolling into second place with a 5.4. The guide considers the company’s overall sustainability, energy use, and product issues (which includes variables like how much recycled plastic is used and the lifespan of its products).

The Good Guide is another great phone-shopping resource. The database rates more than 700 options according to charger efficiency, use of environmentally preferable raw materials, company recycling efforts, and eco-friendly production. Currently, their top-rated choice is the HP Veer 4G Webos Phone, with the Nokia C6 hot on its heels. I encourage you to browse before you buy to review the options and the reasoning behind their ratings.

Whichever one you choose, use it wisely: Don’t leave chargers plugged in, or, even better, try a small solar or wind charger.  And don’t neglect responsible disposal once you’ve talked, texted, and tweeted that phone to death. Check here to see if your phone manufacturer accepts mail-in or drop-off recycling; if not, donate it to a nonprofit group for refurbishment (there are lots), check if your local recycling program accepts electronics (many do), or search databases like Call2Recycle or Greener Gadgets to find a nearby drop-off point. If it can’t be reused, some of those rare earth minerals can be recovered to fuel a new phone.

And while we’re on the subject, may I suggest that you take a little vacation from that phone every once in a while? Step outside, read a book, try walking without training your eyes on a tiny electronic screen for once. Those texts can wait, I promise.

Telephonically,
Umbra