The shadow effects of mobile – 1

While the virtues of mobile technology are far too many to enumerate, the advent of mobile phones in our lives is also casting a long shadow. I have, in some of my past posts extolled the virtues of mobile especially when it comes to impacting the lives like no other technology before.  Electricity, railroads, telephone, radio, rubber, nylon, TV, semiconductors, software – all of these revolutionized human kind in more ways than one. But today’s mobile technology has a sort of wholesome effect, like a multi grained cereal :).

Today, there are more than 5 billion mobile phones in the world and the number is still growing. But, the fast uptake of the mobile phone has some serious consequences. How so, you may ask?

It is primarily environmental. While I am certainly no tree hugger, I am concerned like most folks (or so I hope) about the environment. While the floodlights shine brightly on the cutting edge of the mobile revolution casting an effervescent halo, I believe we must at the very least light a lamp to cast away the long shadows of the mobile revolution.

What do I mean by this?

The mobile phone, like any other piece of electronics hardware consists of many components. From the tiniest screw to the display, on average  around 1000 materials are needed to manufacture the mobile phone of today. It is certainly mind boggling. More so, not only due to the design complexity but also because of the manufacturing and supply chain complexities. There is an entire ecosystem beneath the hood. And central to that ecosystem are the raw materials needed to enable the manufacture of the various components.

Some of the raw materials needed to manufacture the various components are gold, lead, copper, tantalum, lithium, nickel, zinc, beryllium etc. Tantalum , a key component in circuit boards, is a byproduct of coltan, and close to 80% of the worlds reserves of coltan is located in the Republic of Congo. Coltan mining is a very contentious issue and Coltan is often compared to blood diamonds. Just yesterday (July 3rd), CNN had a report on Coltan mining in Congo. Coltan mining conditions are borderline dangerous as most of the mining is done by hand – believe it or not. Further, from a geo-political perspective, Congo is a country that has seen a lot of conflict in recent times with various armed factions vying for the countries vast mineral resources. A lot many innocent lives have been lost in this process – hence the comparison to blood diamonds. Australia is the other country that has most of the remaining coltan reserves (around 15%). Congolese coltan is sent to Australia and is apparently mixed with the Australian coltan in an effort to prevent the branding of coltan (like that of blood diamonds) and to dilute the source. There are a lot of articles on coltan on the web that gives a lot of insight in to this issue.

In addition to these metals, plastics are also used in the manufacture of the phones. Further, there are many chemicals also used in the manufacturing processes of each of the various cell phone components that have a detrimental effect. If you think about it, the life-cycle of the cell phone (or any other product for that matter) includes the following stages –

  1. Materials extraction (mining)
  2. Materials processing
  3. Manufacturing/Assembly/Testing
  4. Packaging/Transportation
  5. Product Usage
  6. Recycling/Waste

Each stage is vital and provides economic value of sorts. Product usage, also known as demand in an economic sense drives the other stages. While each stage creates economic value, it also adds costs to the product BOM (Bill of Materials). This is important in helping derive the base cost of a product. The market on the other hand drives the true product price. The ‘shadow effect’, in my mind is the cost that we don’t see and are often difficult to quantify since they are socio-economic or geo-political in nature among other things. While we consume products, which is not necessarily a bad thing since we need consumption to drive the economic engine, we must be cognizant of this ‘shadow effect’ to prevent long lasting irreversible impact to society.

While, I am definitely am in awe of the mobile revolution, I would be remiss, if I did not point out the social impact that this revolution has caused on the other side. It is important for that we strive to achieve this balance between consumption and irreversible impacts (to our environment and society at large).

I just want to get a conversation started on this topic. Rest assured, I will be covering more on this topic as we move along.

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