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Assessment Of The Water Footprint Of A Mobile Phone -- The Need For A Standardized Method

Congress: 2015
Author(s): Luci­a Lijó, Theoni Massara, Mari­a Teresa Moreira, Evina Katsou
Department of Chemical Engineering, Institute of Technology, University of Santiago de Compostela1, Department of Mechanical, Aerospace and Civil Engineering, Brunel University; Institute for the Environment, Brunel University2

Keyword(s): Sub-theme 10: Management of water resources,
Abstract1. Introduction The number of people experiencing water scarcity is increasing, as well as the severity of the scarcity. The latter is partially associated with the increase in living standards (Kalaugher, 2010). Smartphones are one of the most popular items of technology purchased and because of their relatively short life span typically 1-3 years, millions are being sold each year (The statistics portal, 2014). The concept of 'water footprint' allows an assessment of the volume of water needed to produce and use a commodity (Schyns and Hoekstra, 2014). The water footprint (WF) considers the water use of the supply chain apart from the operational use. The use of WF analysis can be a powerful tool to make the public aware of how much water is consumed by the products they are purchasing. The process of assessment involves calculating the volume of water /kg used to extract and refine primary materials, as well as the volume of water utilised by hydro-electric-power (HEP) to generate the necessary Kwh for the production machines. The current work performs a preliminary estimation of the WF of a mobile phone throughout its whole supply chain. This way, specific measures can be taken in order to reduce the virtual water of an iPhone, to formulate appropriate response strategies and to monitor the water use along the whole supply chain. 2. Materials & Methods To calculate the total WF, the production process of the mobile phone should be divided into stages, where water usage can be measured. Extraction of primary materials - Assessing the volume of water (L/Kg) used in mining operations to unearth a certain amount of raw material from the ground. Processing of primary materials - The volume of water utilised in converting, chemically and mechanically, the primary materials into a technology grade standard. Manufacturing of component parts - The volume of water required to produce hydro-electric-power to generate the energy needed for the production machines. Also, it considers the volume of water needed to produce the microchips and semi-conductors on a phones circuit board. Assembly of all the parts to make the mobile- It is usually a dry process .It includes the volume of water consumed by the personnel and the water needed to produce hydro-electric-power to generate energy for the operation of the machines. Packaging- Volume of water necessary to produce the packaging materials, usually plastic and paper, measured in L/Kg. Distribution to shops- The volume of fuel used/mile is calculated for the estimation of the water needed to determine the fuel use for transportation to shops. Use- The estimation of the energy (KWh) of life use (i.e. charging hours) results in the determination of the volume of water to generate the energy (KWh)of HEP [+(Network operations) x (HEP water vol. for network operations)]. It is important to include the transport between the various stages of production, as in most cases these are not carried out in the same place. A lot of primary materials are mined in China and some in Africa. They are then transported elsewhere within China for refining, manufacturing and assembly. In some cases assembly occurs in USA & Ireland (Lee, 2013). The production of fuels requires water; so it essential to include this when assessing the WF. Currently, there has been a rising interest in alternative fuels, such as biofuels derived from sugar corn and sugar beet. Upon analysis, many times biofuels appear more water intensive, compared to the conventional cracking of oil. However, due to their photosynthetic capabilities they sequester vast amounts of carbon and thus, produce less carbon emissions than petrol or diesel run engines (Wu et al., 2009). Industrial hemp for cellulosic ethanol production could be another useful alternative. Given that it has one of the highest cellulose contents, one of the biggest capacity to sequester carbon per acre, requires less water than the traditional crop, whilst producing 40% more crop than corn per acre and allowing for several harvests each year. By enlarge only the product supply chain has been taken into account, seeing as the operational water footprint consists of numerous variables that are difficult to ascertain. Such as consumer use i.e. heavy, medium or light use, and the amount of KWh used in charging the mobile device. 3. Results and discussion The calculation of the WF and the virtual water embedded in its component parts based on data found in literature -- Table 1 (Chapagain and Hoekstra, 2004; Treloar et al., 2004; Australian Food and Grocery Council, 2003). Circuit boards show the highest consumption of water per Kg of product; therefore making it a hot spot in the production of the mobile phone. Apple also lists a material called 'other' for which no data is available (Apple, 2011). Since, the materials are not listed and therefore the data expresses a conservative estimation of the iPhone's WF. There are limitations on the accurate assessment of the WF of the mobile phone components since there is lack of information concerning the materials used in the supply chain. Information for each stage of the design process was also not available limiting the gained information on the type of process contributed to more water use. Bio-plastics were also researched as raw materials, since their use; result in the reduction of carbon emissions (reduction of the carbon footprint of the products) and an increase in the environmental sustainability of the product. This however; had a negative impact on the WF of a product consuming 20 times the volume of water than standard plastics. Although Apple do not currently use any Bio-plastic in their iPhone 4s it raises the issue of an integrated approach to sustainability looking at both greenhouse gas emissions and water consumption and how some gains in one area can cause major implications in another. The study of Wu et al. (2009) reveals the water consumption for ethanol and petroleum gasoline production. Embedded water in materials of a mobile phone 4. Conclusions The results of the current study revealed that ~262 L of water should be consumed or incorporated for the production of an iPhone 4s. However, this is an estimation based on data that are available in the current literature. The total amount can significantly change if other component parts and stages are considered in the accounting methodology. A conservative estimation was made as it does not include the WF associated with transport, packaging, or the disposal of the phone and the treatment of its wastewater. The development of a standardised model will allow the companies to perform an accurate assessment of the water footprint of their products. This will be driven by consumer choice as the public are becoming more aware of sustainability issues and the impact of technological products such as iPhones have on the world. 1. A.K. Chapagain, A.Y. Hoekstra (2004). Water Footprints of Nations, vols. 1 and 2. UNESCO-IHE Value of Water Research Report Series No 16. 2. Apple Inc. (2011). iPhone 4s Environmental Report. Available at 3. Australian Food and Grocery Council (2003). Environment Report. Available at 4. G.J. Treloar, M. McCormack, L. Palmowski, and R. Fay. 2004. Embodied Water of Construction. Environment Design Guide, May issue, pp. 1-8. The Royal Australian Institute of Architects. 5. J. Zygmunt.(2007). Hidden Waters. Available at 6. J.F. Schyns, A.Y. Hoekstra. (2014). The Added Value of Water Footprint Assessment for National Water Policy: A Case Study for Moro. Available: 7. L. Kalaugher. (2010). The rise and rise of water shortage. Available at 8. M. Wu, M. Mintz, M. Wang, S. Arora. (2009). Consumptive Water Use in the Production of Ethanol and Petroleum Gasoline. Available at 9. S. Lee. (2013). Copy of Life Cycle of a MacBook Pro. Available at 10. The statistics portal. (2014). Forecast: smartphone users in the United Kingdom (UK) 2011-2017. Available at:
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