Part of the improvement in the smartphones comes through removal of hazardous substances. More smartphones are using cables free of polyvinyl chloride (PVC), mercury-free LCD displays and arsenic-free glass. Environmental organizations like Greenpeace regularly carry out tests to check computers for PVC plastic and brominated flame retardants (BFRs). PC makers like Apple, Hewlett-Packard and Dell have been reducing the use of PVC plastic and BFRs in computers in an effort to go green.
Electronics companies are producing cleaner smartphones, but the use of toxic chemicals needs to be discouraged through better regulation, Gearhart said. In 2003, the European Union adopted the ROHS (Restriction of Hazardous Substances Directive), which restricts hazardous substance use in electronics. Efforts are also underway in the U.S. to restrict the use of toxic chemicals in electronics.
There are also ongoing concerns around consumers dumping toxic electronics in waste, which could eventually hurt the environment. Some nonprofit organizations such as Basel Action Network are encouraging recycling and chasing down organizations that send electronics to developing countries, where the products are burned instead of recycled.
A study by the U.N. in 2010 revealed that the e-waste generated by PCs, consumer electronics and appliances would grow by 2020. Discarded mobile phone e-waste in 2020 will be about 18 times higher in India than the 2007 levels and seven times higher in China.
But electronics companies are offering instructions on how products can be recycled for free. Wireless carrier T-Mobile includes return labels in some smartphones so the products can be sent free of cost to recycling centers.