In this Our Changing Climate environmental video essay, I look at the true cost of Samsung smartphones like the Galaxy S10 and the Galaxy Fold. Specifically, I look at the environmental impact of Samsung’s phone from manufacturing to waste and see whether they are an eco-friendly smartphone maker. Samsung has had problems with phones breaking in the past like the Galaxy Note 7, which has led to some environmentally disastrous recalls. Considering Samsung owns a large portion of the smartphone market, it’s important to consider the environmental consequences of phones that are rushed to the market like the Galaxy Fold.
Transcript provided by YouTube:
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If you’re anything like me, you probably start off your day by hitting the snooze button
multiple times before finally dragging yourself over to your smartphone to spend your first
waking minutes scrolling through social media.
We are conditioned to be drawn to our smartphones, and it’s hard to not constantly look at
95% of people who own smartphones use them daily.
And in 2018, consumers bought 1.4 billion phones, with Samsung capturing the most smartphones
sold at 291.3 million devices.
Considering these massive sales numbers, there’s a surprising lack of conversation about smartphones
and the environment.
So today, I’m going to answer a simple question: what kind of impact do Samsung smartphones
have on the environment?
If we look at the lifespan of a phone, there are really three distinct areas where the
phone creates an environmental impact: manufacturing, use, and waste.
But the environmental impact of the “use” phase of a Samsung phone can vary widely depending
on what type of electricity grid you’re plugging into.
As a result, today we’re only going to focus on the production and waste aspects of a Samsung
So let’s start at the beginning.
The birth of a Samsung phone like their flagship Galaxy line begins with a number of extracted
minerals like cobalt for the battery, tungsten for the vibration module, gold for the processor,
and a host of other rare earth metals.
Because gold and tungsten are primarily mined under terrible conditions in the Democratic
Republic of Congo and sold and traded by armed forces within the country, these minerals
are currently labeled as conflict minerals.
And in the case of Samsung, Cobalt can also be grouped into this category.
The company has confirmed that they get their cobalt for batteries from mines in Congo but
claim that they only work with mining companies that treat their workers ethically.
On the environmental side, rare earth metals can have a huge impact.
Each little bit of metal requires massive amounts of earth to be removed and sorted
Both of which requires millions of tons of wastewater, extensive fossil fuel inputs,
and unwanted toxic pollutants.
But to be fair, most of Samsung’s competitors are also using a similar mix of metals in
So it’s also important to look at the sustainability commitments that Samsung has made in the last
couple of years in order to truly understand how they approach their product’s relationship
with the environment.
Samsung has made at least some effort to create environmental initiatives surrounding the
production of their phones.
For one, they work with a third party carbon reduction service called Carbon Trust, which
helps companies minimize the carbon footprint of their products like the Galaxy smartphone
across its whole lifecycle.
As a result, Samsung has made progress in the realm of phone packaging with the newest
Samsung claims that it’s sold in a 100% plastic free recycled paper box, and the phone
has also received a Gold rating from the Electronic Product Environmental Assessment Tool, which
looks at various environmental categories like energy use requirements and the use of
On their website, Samsung has set a number of targets like reaching a cumulative reduction
of 250 million tons of CO2 by 2020.
But targets often are missed or can be stretched.
According to a report by Greenpeace, in 2016, only 1% of Samsung’s energy came from renewable
This definitely pales in comparison to a company like Apple, which is now powering a 100% of
its global operations with renewable energy.
According to a survey of 3,500 phone owners across the globe, the average use period for
a phone is 21 months.
And now there are over 7 billion smartphones.
Needless to say, smartphone waste will continue to be a problem long into the future if consumers,
and more importantly, tech juggernauts like Samsung don’t get their act together.
And Samsung has definitely had blunders when it comes to waste.
The disastrous recall of Samsung’s Galaxy Note 7 is a perfect example.
Back in 2016, Samsung released the top of the line Galaxy Note 7 that wowed reviewers
until it started inexplicably exploding in people’s faces.
Part of the reason for this malfunction was that Samsung rushed the phone to market.
As a result, Samsung had to recall 4.3 million recently sold Note 7 phones.
Not only was the environmental cost of manufacturing all these phones massive, but also the possibility
of reclaiming all of the rare earth metals and components from the phones was pretty
So this explosive debacle left millions of Samsung phones sitting around, with little
transparency from Samsung about the possibility of their future.
At its core, a sustainable phone needs to be durable and easy to repair, something that
Samsung has struggled with.
The Galaxy S8 Plus model was deemed the most breakable phone on the market by the International
Business Times, and the recent $2000 Galaxy Fold phones have been reported to break within
days of purchasing.
In addition, the DIY repair website iFixit placed Samsung’s newest Galaxy S10 model
in the middle of the back in terms of repairability citing the difficulty opening the phone because
of a glued down screen, which ultimately makes it harder to replace the battery.
In short, Samsung needs to focus on durability and repairability if they are to seriously
consider the environmental cost of their phones.
If their phones start breaking only days after they make it to market like the Galaxy Fold,
that could mean tons of squandered resources and emissions.
Ultimately, Samsung runs steadily in the middle of the pack when it comes to their environmental
They don’t offer nearly enough options for DIY repairs or refurbishing, and they haven’t
sought out ambitious emissions targets like Apple, but they have made strides in other
parts of their process like packaging or third party certifications.
As we look toward the future, the smartphone is here to stay.
So as consumers we need to be wary in our desire for new gadgets.
Instead of placing that old phone in a drawer to collect dust, maybe consider giving it
to a friend or someone in need.
And when you’re finally ready to get another phone, think about whether you actually need
that brand new edition, because you often can settle for an equally-good year-old phone.
When it comes down to it, though, these are all ways to navigate an imperfect market.
The reality is that smartphone companies like Samsung need to work hard to change their
processes so it’s not only possible but also very easy to make the most environmentally
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Hey everyone, Charlie here.
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This post was previously published on YouTube.
Photo credit: Screenshot from video