US’ favourite obsession gets greener

by Nathaniel Bullard & Adam Minter / BLOOMBERG

Americans have never been more addicted to devices. Thanks to the mobile revolution initiated by the iPhone, the US alone is home to 238 million mobile phones and 140 million tablets that are rarely shut down. And their numbers are growing, thanks to a perpetual upgrade cycle and demand for new features. For environmentalists, it’s a looming electronic nightmare in which US’ gadget obsession consumes increasingly higher volumes of the world’s limited resources.

Thankfully, the data shows that’s not happening. As Americans shift from big devices such as traditional tube televisions and personal computers to smaller mobile devices, electricity and resource consumption is declining rapidly.

America’s gadget habit has never been greener.

First, those electronics, courtesy of a new study for the Consumer Technology Association: Despite the hundreds of millions of smartphones and tablets now in US pockets and on bedside tables, there are far fewer electronic devices around now than there were four years ago.

This finding will probably surprise many readers, but think, for a moment, about the devices each new smartphone replaces. Tablets ate your secondary TV, for instance, and with it the set-top box that accompanied it. Tablets also ate your laptop computer (after the laptop ate your desktop), and smartphones eliminate all of those devices together.

The result for energy is striking. The reduction in total devices in use since their peak in 2013 pales in comparison to the decrease in actual electricity consumption per device since 2006. And since 2010, there has been a 25% reduction in total energy consumption by those electronics.

For all of their ubiquity — and their contribution (whatever your opinion on that contribution) to contemporary life — smartphones and tablets use very little electricity, especially compared to earlier generations of technology. For example, Americans’ 284 million TVs use 35 times more electricity than their 238 million smartphones. For that matter, the remaining 104 million cordless phones in the US use more electricity than US smartphones — and the remaining 113 million clock radios use more electricity than 140 million tablets. Finally, the 284 million TVs in use in American households is down from 353 million in 2010. Smartphones and tablets really are eating everything — and replacing them with something many times more energy-efficient.

Electricity isn’t the only thing gadgets are consuming in smaller amounts. The shift away from heavy, traditional tube TVs to lightweight flatscreens, phones and tablets has resulted in a substantial decrease in the amount of raw materials going into electronics. According to recent research led by Callie Babbitt, a professor at the Rochester Institute of Technology, the total weight of consumer electronics sold in the US every year peaked in 2000 and had declined to 1993 levels by 2015 (the last year for which data was available) — despite the fact that Americans consumed 350 million more devices in 2015.

Leaded glass, a heavy and difficult-to-recycle component of traditional cathode-ray tube TVs, was the biggest weight loss.

But since the late 2000s, steel, aluminium and copper have also seen declines. In 1990, tube TVs and computer monitors made up more than three-quarters of all US household electronic inflows by weight — and were more than 50% in 2006. By 2008, they had nearly vanished.

A smaller footprint at the electronics store makes for a smaller footprint in the waste stream, and since 2015, America’s e-waste volume has been in decline. This isn’t just a matter of lighter gadgets. Every year, 120 million used smartphones are sold, creating a global market worth at least US$17 billion (RM69.02 billion).

Previous generations of used electronics also traded globally but never in such numbers. It’s one reason that, in 2017, small gadgets have comprised only 8.7% of what the United Nations defines as e-waste (refrigerators, washing machines, vacuum cleaners and other large devices make up the rest).

Despite massive uptake of gadgets worldwide, the global weight of discarded small equipment like smartphones will only grow 2% annually through 2020.

That doesn’t mean there isn’t more work to be done. Today’s small gadgets may use less power and materials than previous generations did, but their size makes them difficult to repair or recycle. That shortens their lifespan — a bad outcome for consumers and the environment alike. But manufacturers are beginning to address these problems, too. Companies such as HP Inc and Dell Inc are leading the way with designs that extend the lifespan of devices and enable recyclers to extract materials affordably. That’s good news for consumers, and even better news for the environment. — Bloomberg

  • This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.