Oct 2, 2020

Hey Siri, Can My Phone Stop Global Warming?

The planet is burning—in large part because of our cell phones. Cell phone manufacturing is a significant contributor to rising global temperatures, and as the smartphone wars continue to heat up, so does the planet. The more devices we produce, the warmer the climate will get.

According to research reported in the Journal of Cleaner Production, greenhouse gas emissions from the Information and Communications Technology Industry—which includes computers and phones as well as infrastructure like data centers—could grow to more than 14 percent of total greenhouse gasses in 2040. That’s the equivalent carbon footprint of the entire transportation sector today.*

But, why exactly are our phones so bad for the planet? Sheer volume of devices, planned obsolescence and non recyclability.

Churn and Burn

According to data from GSMA Intelligence, there are 5.15 billion unique mobile phone users in the world today—that number grew by 121 million in the past 12 months alone. Smartphone use is currently growing at an annual rate of eight percent, with an average of more than one million new smartphones coming into use every day.

Current technology makes smartphones difficult to recycle and the tidal wave of device production exacerbates the problem of waste. Fewer than one percent of smartphones get recycled and the average user hangs on to their phone for only two years, which is creating a cycle of production and pollution with long-term consequences.

The Killer Cloud

The bulk of the carbon footprint associated with smartphones—and tech hardware in general—is actually buried in the manufacturing chain. More CO2 emissions are generated when making smartphones than using them, but usage still accounts for a massive amount of energy consumption. Every email, tweet, and video lives on a server somewhere. All those servers humming away in data centers around the world need to be powered and cooled. More power, more emissions.

A Better Tomorrow Begins with Better Materials

The ubiquity of smartphones and our reliance on them isn’t going to change. If anything, our dependence on mobile technology and its pervasiveness will increase. We need to make smartphones in a smarter way. That means building them with better materials that are affordable, efficient, and renewable.

The materials that make up your phone have been the same for years, limited to a small number of molecular building blocks. That rotary phone on grandma’s wall uses the same basic plastic structures we see in our smartphones today. At Zymergen, we refuse to believe that’s the only answer.

But making better materials isn’t incremental—it requires revolutionary thinking and wholly new building blocks. We’re upending the electronics industry with new and better products, built with biology. Hyaline is Zymergen’s breakthrough bio-derived film for electronics applications, and it’s just the beginning.

We won’t solve the carbon conundrum overnight, but we’re confident that our materials will help lead the electronics industry down a better path. We’ll have more to share about Hyaline in the coming weeks and when you should expect to see it in your next device—so check back with this blog soon.