Overproduction in the mobile phone industry

4 mins read

Around two thirds of the world’s population have a smartphone and/or tablet and that number is accelerating as our digital dependency grows.

However, whilst these portable devices are rapidly becoming the preferred touchpoint for accessing the internet, it is becoming much more difficult to ignore the well-publicised data pertaining to the detrimental impact they are having on the environment and climate change.

In 2022, smartphones were estimated to have generated in excess of 142 million tonnes of C02 equivalent emissions, predominantly from the manufacturing, shipping, and first year usage of new devices. Moreover, the problem is exacerbated by the need for multiple model variants of a single product, depending on geographical location, mobile network operator specifications and services required, resulting in overproduction and supply chain waste. 

The UN’s Global E-waste Monitor2020 report found that e-waste destined to be scrapped increased by 21% to 53.6 million tonnes in just 5 years. Closer to home, the BBC reported that 5.3 billion devices were destined for landfill in 2022.

To make matters worse, much of this e-waste is often exported to developing countries whose populations are experiencing the devastating effects of the pollution that contaminates their health and the local environment. With less than 20% of e-waste recycled currently, overproduction in smartphone manufacture needs to be addressed as a matter of urgency.

Causes of overproduction

A primary cause of overproduction is the complexity of demand forecasting, amplified since 5G was launched and the need for more spectrum to be made available as a result.

Spectrum allocation has also become increasingly fragmented, with a proliferation of new frequency bands, many of which are restricted to certain territories.

Today’s smartphones must support all operational services (3G, 4G and 5G) and the OEMs must cater to global network operator requirements. The introduction of more frequency bands has had a direct impact on the number of variants needed per phone model, complicating demand predictions and resulting in excess production. As frequency band allocations intensify to meet market demand, there is a greater risk of model variants becoming obsolete and ultimately being scrapped.

Market dynamics are another contributing factor. The average smartphone contract is 2-3 years. Even though mobile phones have a much longer shelf-lives, brand loyal customers are accustomed to upgrading to the latest models because of the advanced features introduced. This culturally ingrained belief that we need to regularly upgrade to the latest handset versions generates colossal amounts of e-waste, most of which ends up being burnt or in landfill because the costs of scrapping versus the costs of recycling are hugely disproportionate.

Combine these factors with rapid smartphone proliferation in emerging markets, not least because they provide remote communities with a vital lifeline to the outside world, overproduction is set to intensify.

Impacts of overproduction

Around 80% of the carbon footprint of a smartphone occurs during production because of the energy-intensive processes of manufacturing and mining. Moreover, the average smartphone comprises 75 out of the 81 stable non-radioactive elements of the periodic table. Whilst silicon and plastic account for around 50% of a phone’s make-up, precious metals are also in abundance, with gold, silver, and copper integral to circuit board PCB wiring.

Not only does the extraction of these metals pose serious threats to natural ecosystems, but the percentage of usable material also obtained versus the waste generated is hugely disparate. With an increasing number of elements now regarded as “endangered” by scientists, overproduction of mobile handsets will only exacerbate the situation.

Economic and social ramifications

Apart from creating significant e-waste challenges that cause irreversible damage if not kept in check, overproduction can also have serious economic ramifications, leading to market saturation, consumer discontent and financial instability for manufacturers due to rock bottom prices. Such is the shortsightedness of some key players, they believe it is more viable to sell off surplus products at a lower price point than to embrace sustainable manufacturing because of the higher costs involved.

At the other end of the scale, consumers who have paid a premium for the latest handset versions will feel somewhat disgruntled to say the least when these models are sold off at a significantly reduced price, impacting customer retention and brand loyalty.

Reducing Phone Variants to simplify demand forecast

You could be forgiven for thinking that designing longer-lasting phones using recycled materials would resolve the waste dilemma, but this is only half the challenge. The number of model variants needed is increasing as the world goes digital and band counts accelerate. 

Fewer devices need to be manufactured from the get-go and the only way to achieve this is to reduce the number of model variants. Thus far this has not been possible due to the limitation of FDD filters and duplexers (present in all mobile devices in their existing format). OEMs build on a global scale, but frequency band allocations are regional. If overproduction is to be resolved, this imbalance needs to change and/or these critical components need to be designed differently.

If this were achieved manufacturing would be streamlined and this in turn would lead to a reduction in the environmental and economic costs associated with overproduction. Reducing the number of phone variants would also significantly simplify demand forecasting. With fewer models from the outset, manufacturers can more accurately predict the quantity of each model needed, thereby reducing the likelihood of overproduction.

Consumer behaviour changes

There also needs to be a seismic shift in attitudes towards mobile phone upgrades and this must be championed by the mobile networks themselves as part of their CSR strategies. Promoting the merits of sustainability versus the need for regular upgrades would help reduce demand for constantly new models and associated model variants.


Overproduction in the mobile phone industry is a multifaceted issue with significant environmental, economic, and social impacts. Addressing it requires a concerted effort to adopt sustainable practices, shift consumer behaviour, and improve demand forecasting. Reducing the number of phone variants is a critical step towards achieving this goal, leading to a more sustainable, economically viable, and environmentally responsible mobile phone industry.

Author details: Ronald Wilting, CEO of Forefront RF