Where does your smartphone come from? That question doesn’t have an easy answer. Chances are good that the device was assembled in a factory in China, but the materials that went into it likely came from all over the world. The copper wiring from Indonesia, the cobalt in its rechargeable battery from the Democratic Republic of Congo, and the iron in its speakers and microphone from the Amazon.

The combined effort to extract these materials — and the many others required to turn them into a smartphone — takes a heavy toll on people and on the environment.

To start with, there’s the carbon footprint: Four-fifths of the carbon emissions generated by a new iPhone come not from international shipping but from mining and manufacturing. Then there’s the rampant ecosystem destruction: Mining for gold — used for connectors and wires in electronic devices — is a major cause of deforestation in the Amazon, for example, while tin mining off the coast of Indonesia is responsible for destroying coral reefs.

The human rights abuses associated with mining for smartphone materials are just as alarming. To take just one example, much of the cobalt mining in the Democratic Republic of Congo is performed by women and children operating in toxic and potentially lethal environments. Neither the mining companies nor the electronics companies are held accountable for failing to address the inhumane practices they rely on.

The environmental and human impacts of electronic devices don’t end when they reach consumers. Most of us exchange our smartphones and laptops for new ones every few years. The disposal of these and other electronic devices generates an alarming amount of trash, or e-waste, as it’s called. In 2019 alone, we generated 53.6 million metric tons of e-waste globally, a figure that is expected to hit nearly 75 million by 2030.

Some organizations and individuals take care to recycle their used electronic devices. Traditionally, however, this has led to many devices being shipped to developing countries, where they are often stripped of valuable metals in unsafe and unregulated environments.

Read the full article about a circular economy for devices at Grist.