BY: JENN FRENCH
Typically, conversations related to mobile devices and sustainability are focused on the damage that our reliance on cellphones and tablets is doing to the environment. It’s undoubtedly a concern; after all, anywhere between 20 and 50 million metric tons of electronic waste is disposed of every year, and e-waste makes up about 70 per cent of all the toxic waste in the world.
However, for all of the talk about how mobile devices are filling landfills and polluting the environment, there is another side of the issue, and that’s how mobile devices are actually helping the environment and supporting sustainability. In many ways, mobile devices could actually be a key to a more sustainable future.
From Many to One
Just two decades ago, accessing technology “on the go” meant carrying multiple devices. You might have a mobile phone, useful only for making and receiving calls and text messages. Your bag might also contain a camera (possibly even a film camera), a music player (which may have required a cassette or CD to play music), and a laptop computer. That’s not even counting all the devices that you had at home or in the office, including televisions, media players, fax machines, printers and scanners.
For most of us, mobile devices have replaced some or all of these other machines. Smartphones are no longer just phones, but essentially handheld computers that perform most of the primary functions of their larger counterparts. Cloud-based services allow you to access your important files and vast libraries of music via the internet, and with your device’s camera, you can take as many selfies as you want without ever having to print or develop any of them. And if you need to fax or scan something? Just download an app, and do it right from your device.
Building traditional electronic devices uses a great deal of resources, including electricity and water, which also creates pollution. However, by consolidating devices into a single smaller one, which can be recycled, we have the potential to save significant resources in addition to keeping toxic waste out of our landfills.
The App Revolution
As briefly mentioned above, different applications can help limit the need to purchase standalone machines to accomplish simple tasks. However, the app revolution extends beyond just replacing the need to use resources. Different apps can actually help individuals make more sustainable choices in their everyday lives.
- Transportation apps can help connect individuals with car sharing services that reduce the need for individual car ownership and the number of cars on the road. Other transportation apps help people compare different options for their trips and choose the one that is most environmentally-friendly, or help them measure their fuel consumption and offer tips on how to reduce it.
- Energy-savings apps can provide some eye-opening facts about your resource usage, while also showing you ways to reduce. For instance, one app allows you to input information about your daily habits, which it then uses to show you your estimated energy usage and where you are wasting resources.
- Recycling apps can help you determine what can be recycled and where.
- Several apps are in development that can help scientists measure air pollution and determine air quality. While it’s possible that this task may one day happen automatically thanks to sensors embedded in mobile devices, for now, apps like the University of Southern California’s Visibility app allows users to submit photos of the sky in their area, which is then compared to a database of air quality markers to provide up-to-date information about the air quality.
These are just a few of the apps that are allowing users to live greener, more sustainable lives.
Disease and Disaster Response
Finally, mobile devices are becoming an integral part of efforts to respond to disasters and disease outbreaks, limiting the impacts and improving sustainability. In Africa, for example, efforts to report disease outbreaks in remote regions could take up to four weeks via traditional paper methods. Using text messages, the process takes about three minutes, improving the response and saving lives. First responders to emergencies can use mobile devices to not only send up-to-the-minute information, but also access information and applications that provide important information and instructions on how to respond and handle certain situations. In emergencies where trained personnel have not yet arrived, such information can mean the difference between life and death.
Although e-waste is a significant issue, and we need to redouble efforts to encourage consumers to reuse and recycle older devices, it’s inaccurate to say that mobile devices are completely harmful. We are only in the early stages of the digital revolution, and it’s very likely that mobile will be a major player in future efforts towards sustainability.