Sustainability Corner: The Life of a Cell Phone

Cellphones are like boys: we can’t live with them, and we can’t live without them — LOL right? Live being a carefully selected word; this definition extends beyond the realm of life-sustaining and into the quality of that sustained life.

With cellphones, we’ve been able to beef-up our personal security, artificially enhance our sense of direction, eat over-reviewed food, take #nofilter pictures and share this with the world, allowing us to travel further, longer and even by ourselves. Cellphones have also confused interpersonal connection, made walking on Ring Road fucking annoying and made us dependent on ameliorating applications creating a ball and chain effect between us and these doubled edged swords. The cons of cellphones are contingent upon a complicated self-absorption of what helps and what hurts us. With the expansion of the competitive cellphone market and our steady investment into the newest technology, it is imperative that our affluent society considers the environmental and human impacts by looking at the life-span of a cellphone.

The life of a phone starts long before it is adopted from a store and carried back to a loving, yet sometimes careless, home.

Cellphones and their components are made with raw materials such as copper, gold, lead and nickel mined from the ground, which need crude oil for manufacturing to process these raw materials into circuit boards and batteries. Mining has intensely negative environmental effects of soil erosion, groundwater pollution and loss of biodiversity, leaving much of post-mined land abandoned and unable to be reclaimed.

Mining is a necessary evil we must practice in order to acquire all the materials for our industrialized nations, but reducing the amount of cell phones and their appendages wasted, on a large scale, would eventually cut back on the amount of raw materials being mined.

After the necessary materials are processed into usable features, that cellphone must be manufactured which moves the focus from terrestrial to humanistic.

Most cellphone manufacturing takes place in developing nations such as China, India and Malaysia where the standards for business production do not equate with our United States labor laws, and there is no one to stop such a feasible solution for a company like Apple.

Factory fires and unsafe working conditions have caught recent attention as noted in a January 2012 two-part series for the New York Times called “The iEconomy: A Punishing System.” The article describes what has been Apple’s lack of concern for continued dangerous conditions at their factories located in China. In 2010, workers were ordered to use a chemical to clean iPhone screens and 137 of them were injured because that cleaning agent was poisonous. Seven months after that careless incident, two explosions at a factory in Chengdu, China resulted in four deaths and 77 injuries. What followed was an appalling statistic reported in 2010 by the New York Times that 18 workers had attempted suicide and 14 died. Nets hang in memory of those workers, yet the injustices continue and there seems to be no way around supporting companies that don’t enforce good labor practices.

Summed up by a March 2012 C-Net article “Is any smartphone not made in China?” author Eric Mack traced the manufacturing roots of most cellphone companies like Nokia, HTC, Samsung, BlackBerry and of course Apple. Chances are, parts of your phone, if not the whole phone, pass through China on its long, unsustainable journey to retail stores. The amount of traveling required for cellphones and their building blocks not only weighs heavily on the environment, but also comes at a huge cost to our human workforce.

All these multi-varied costs must be protected, which brings our life-span trace to the packaging of cellphones and cellphone equipment.

Does too much paperwork, too many misunderstood asterisks and  a large waste of paper sound familiar… like purchasing a cellphone? Boxes, manuals, packaging, unimportant rebate/upgrade offers all add up to a ton of waste that may or may not be recycled. The small plastic wrapping on phones, chargers and USB cords, although most cities will recycle, is not very efficient to recycle because the light weight plastic has a tendency to fly off conveyor belts or out of recycling trucks. Most don’t know whether that plastic can be recycled or not so by default most people will throw things of that nature away.

This may seem small, but consider that, according to Computer Weekly, 1.75 billion cellphones were sold in 2012 alone.The amount of plastic generated from these purchases suddenly becomes a landfill full of non-compostable plastic.

Toward the end of a cellphone’s overused life comes the two R’s in the sustainable triangle — reuse and recycle. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) predicts that 125 million cellphones are disposed of every year creating more than 65,000 pounds of e-waste.

E-waste is a tremendous health hazard because as batteries and other materials used to manufacture cellphones degrade overtime, the chemicals leech and become toxic contaminates to groundwater and in places like India and the Philippines where their landfills border their living spaces, this is a huge concern.

Cellphones, if in working conditions, should be donated to organizations like women’s shelters who give the reusable phones to survivors of domestic violence trying to break away from abusive relationships. A lot of these women flee their homes with nothing and providing them with a cellphone ensures personal safety but also that they can be contacted by employers and different civil servants, getting their lives back to normal quicker.

October being Domestic Violence Awareness Month, the CARE office is doing a cellphone recycling drive from Oct. 1- Nov. 1 where anyone may donate working and non-working phones to the CARE office.

If the cellphones are not in working condition, most of the materials and components can be recycled and are actually very profitable in the recycling world. India recognized the health hazards of e-waste and developed legislation and protocol creating a domestic and efficient e-waste recycling system and now market averages 22 cents higher than the average domestic market.

Cellphones are necessary, fun and practical —  but within these normalized gadgets is an international journey depicting a tale of human and environmental cost. While there is still work to be done on the human cost of cellphone manufacturing, we can help prevent the environmental destruction that begins at the end of our phone’s life. With conscious thought and proper disposal, cellphones can give back way beyond their life expectancy.