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I may be a dedicated zero waste advocate, but just like everyone else I have guilty pleasures and moments of weakness. Currently I’m suffering from a serious case of  iGuilt. Although I have a perfectly good mobile phone, I wasn’t strong enough to resist the offer of a brand new free iphone from a service provider who wanted to get me on board.

But it’s so shiny and pretty!

I’ve had my Blackberry for about two years now which corresponds with the average cell phone turnover rate for Americans (Recon Analytics, 2011). This two year time frame also corresponds with Moore’s law which states that the capabilities of technology double approximately every two years (that’s now happening even faster). There’s no doubt that technological upgrades contribute to mobile phone turnover but upgrades rarely make old versions obsolete. Even if the iPhone has some extra perks and fancy apps that I currently don’t have, my trusty old Blackberry can still make calls, text, play games and connect me to the ever essential Facebook.

Many people (me included!) don’t upgrade their phone because the old one is broken or because they desperately need the new technology (does anyone actually even use Siri?). We want a new phone, a new anything, simply because it’s new.  This desire for new means that Americans trash 150 million cell phones each year. In addition, it’s estimated that there’s 500 million more sitting around in people’s drawers (Leonard, 2010, p. 29)

Proving that its possible to live without a new phone every two years or less, it’s interesting to learn that other countries such as India and Brazil keep cell phones for over six years while Germans and Italians average four years (Recon Analytics, 2011).

My iGuilt is a part of a much bigger problem.

The problem with trashing our phones every two years, or even every six years, is that these little pieces of plastic, glass and metal cause some serious environmental, health and social problems during the various phases of their short lives. Here’s a quick overview…

  • Materials extraction: The various components of a cell phone (circuit board, battery, LCD screen) require the mining and extraction of raw materials including crude oil, mercury, copper, gold, lead, nickel,zinc, beryllium, tantalum, coltan, and other metals. Many of these are persistent toxins meaning they can stay in the environment for long periods of time, even after disposal. The extraction of these materials is energy, water and waste intensive, contaminating the air, water, soil. Some estimates have revealed that 165 pounds of waste is created during the production of a mobile phone. Many of the workers involved in extraction processes suffer directly related health problems, are victims of workplace accidents or child labour and may be affected by related conflict situations involving brutal guerilla forces.
  • Materials processing and manufacturing: After materials are mined they must be processed into a usable form which requires even more energy, water, waste and various toxic chemicals. These materials must then be assembled which results in – you guessed it – more energy, water, waste and toxic chemicals (think adhesives and soldering). Again, workers suffer the consequences of working with such highly toxic chemicals. Even those sites adhering to best practices result in worker and environmental contamination (Leonard, 2010 p. 60).
  • Transportation: Transit doesn’t just happen once the product has been assembled and shipped off to the seller. Raw materials have to be transported from extraction sites to processors and then on to manufacturers, on to stores and then to our homes. Each of these stages may occur half a world away requiring transit by fuel hungry, polluting freight ships (99% of American overseas trade occurs via water transit).
  • Usage: Once that phone finally ends up in your eager hands, energy is required to charge the battery. Unless you’re somehow using pedal or muscle power to charge your bars then there’s waste and pollution occurring somewhere. Radiation emitted from your cell phone also has the potential to cause brain cancer, lowered sperm counts, altered brain metabolism, sleep disturbance and behavioural changes in children (Environmental Working Group, n.d.).

    The reality of e-waste “recycle” programs may be quite different from what you’d imagine.

  • Disposal/Recycling: After the two years or so of useful life, you may (illegally!) send your phone off to the dump. Here it will leach all those serious toxins into our ground water and soil (the US EPA has acknowledged that all landfills inevitably leak – Fed. Reg., Feb. 5, 1981). Or maybe you’ll opt for the responsible option and recycle your phone. Unfortunately, many of those recycling programs aren’t all that great. Very few of the components can actually be stripped and reused (valuable stuff like the gold and copper will be, but the plastic is useless and often burned). Multiple toxins are released into the air, soil and water that surround electronic recycling operations (often occurring overseas in developing countries) and toxins have been found in the blood of workers and their children (Walters & Santillo, 2008).

So to summarize, cell phones and all electronic products in general, have some pretty serious consequences and effects on our world, our bodies and the lives of the people who make them. When you trash a phone you also trash an estimated 165 pounds of other waste that was created during the production of that phone. They are not disposable objects. And while my gut wrenching iShame won’t lessen any of the detrimental effects of my moment of weakness, it’s important that we’re aware of the consequences of our actions and effects of the products we use. We also need to demand electronics that are durable, repairable and upgradable. We need to demand electronics and recycling processes that don’t damage the environment, workers and consumers. We also need to take responsibility for our part in this mess through rethinking and adjusting our constant demand for new.

As for my part, the best thing that I can do from here is to guard my shiny new iPhone with my life, vow not to drop it in the toilet or lose it. Vow to repair it rather than trash it when something goes wrong. And most importantly, I vow to love this phone till death do us part and not a moment sooner.

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6 thoughts on “iGuilt

  1. This is a nicely human article. It shows that, even though we know the impacts of what we do, we sometimes still do them. We do this knowing the depths of our hypocrisy – the mobile phone example you give is perfect. I too ditched my Blackberry recently in favour of an iPhone, and did knowing all what you write. Perhaps we can live in the hope that more waste creates greater opportunities for people to close the loop. Sure, not as energy efficient as simply not consuming, but a pretty good second best.

    • Thanks for this comment Adam and it’s nice to know someone else has iGuilt too! Ignorance is certainly bliss but people like us, who know all the problems, aren’t immune to temptation and (reluctantly) give in sometimes.

  2. Hi. I am enjoying your posts and laughed when I saw this one, because I am feeling the urge to finally upgrade my camera-less flip-phone of six years, but still can’t get myself to do it because of all the reasons above. (You should add gorillas as well as guerillas to Materials Extraction, as well as habitat loss and loss of wildlife.) Maybe you would feel less guilty if you passed on your Blackberry to me, ha, ha!

  3. Glad the article was timely for you Grace! And yes, that’s a good point about wildlife habitat as well. I would love to pass along my Blackberry to you but I have to admit that I do like to have it as a back up just in case I end up not being as careful with my iPhone as I plan to be! That being said, I’d check out Craigslist for a cheap used model – I suspect there are people who would even be willing to give them away for free. There’s even a free section on Craigslist too which I peruse quite often!

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