Op-Ed: Cell Phones Generate E-Waste

The 21st century is known as the age of technology.  Every year there is a new electronic gadget designed to be sleeker, smarter, faster, and more able to do many different actions at once. With all this new technology ingratiating itself and being ubiquitous in our lives, people often forget to ask what happens to the older appliances that are disposed of in order to obtain the newest piece of technology. Electronic waste (e-waste), the disposal of electronic appliances such as cell phones, computers, chargers, refrigerators, microwaves, etc., is the fastest growing waste trade in the US, and its effects on the environment and to people around the world involved in its life cycle is staggering. The suffering of a minority group of an unfair portion of the environmental/health problems of the world is known as environmental injustice, and e-waste is a major contributor to environmental injustice. Most people are unaware of the life cycle that goes into making an electronic device and all the factors and externalities that encompass it. This article, using the iPhone as an example, is meant to serve as a life-cycle analysis of e-waste, from its path to manufacturing, into the consumers’ hands, and finally to its disposal, where the injustices of each stage are highlighted, in order to create a more aware consumer.

The first stage of the process that goes into making electronics is finding/extracting the materials and metals that are used to make each part of the device. Many of the materials that go into an iPhone, such as tin, tungsten, coltan and gold, come from countries that are currently fighting wars over the control of the mines of these metals. For the past 15 years, the Democratic Republic of Congo has had civil war, which they fuel by mining and selling these minerals, all of which results in respiratory problems for the workers, environmental degradation from the deforestation and mining of the land, and over five million rapes and deaths. The production of one ounce of old for a 16GB iPhone 3GS results in 80 tons of waste, and because of all the middlemen that actually handle the transaction of these metals, it is easy for this information to be obfuscated and for these “conflict minerals” to get into the supply chain.  If any of these metals were to leak into the soil or groundwater, they could cause massive health problems and pollute the environment and water into an irreversible and unusable state.

The next step of the process comes when all the materials are sent to be manufactured into the actual product.  Most of the assembly for electronic devices goes to foreign nations, mainly to Guiyu, China, a hot spot for assembly and “recycling” of materials.  Many countries are willing to accept the risks that come dealing with noxious chemicals and their pollution because they see an economic opportunity, one that no one else deems worthy to consider.  Workers get exposed to the toxins that go into making phones like polyvinyl chlorinated plastics, brominated flame retardants, lithium batteries, etc.  Emissions come from the factories producing these electronics and contribute to global warming, and wastewater from the factories often gets discharged into the surrounding area, even though it’s filled with heavy metals.  Apple relies on outsourcing for the assembly of their iPhones, and as with the iPhone 4, have been silent on the pollution going on in China over the past few years.  Chinese grassroots movements have started to confront Apple about this issue, but a good portion of the problem relates back to the consumer and the next stage of the life cycle, the personal use of the electronics.

The next stage of the life cycle involves the consumer and the personal use of cellphones and electronics.  Studies tend to concur that about 30% of the carbon emissions for the life cycle of a cell phone actual come from personal use, and this involves the emissions from the companies that provide the electricity we use to power our devices, and from the cell phone itself; each time messages and calls are sent/received, there is a spike in the emissions.  People tend to charge their phones/computers everyday instead of when the battery is low, which means more energy is being used and more emissions are released.  Also, the iPhone releases 1.19 w/kg SAR radiation, which is only two and a half times less than the amount shown to cause behavioral changes in animals.  Not only is e-waste causing injustice issues abroad, it is also affecting the consumer itself.  The consumer has a major role in the life cycle of any product, including how they dispose of their e-waste.

The last stage of the life cycle of a product involves the disposing of the item and what is done with it afterwards.  Although many brands like Apple offer reliable and available take back systems where people can recycle their electronics sustainably, many people disregard this option. Electronics often get hoarded or simply thrown away into the trash where they can get into landfills and leach chemicals into the soil and water, or, as happens in foreign countries, they get sent to incinerators and release the toxins into the atmosphere.  The US is able to ship e-waste overseas legally because the US has yet to sign the Basil Action Network plan, which attempts to prevent the shipping and selling of waste overseas to be handled by other nations.  Popular places where electronics get recycled are in Delhi, Inida and Guiyu, China, where children hammer away to break open the devices and extract anything that they can sell for some money.  These countries accept this waste because they see that they can make some money from  “recycling” the e-waste, but in the process they expose themselves to harsh conditions and toxic chemicals.  In light of all this information, the next question to ask is what is the role of the consumer and the supplier in this life cycle, and what can we do in order to implement justice for those who are suffering.

E-waste is a growing international problem as it impacts the lives of thousands of people, damaging their health and their environment. Consumers have the one of the most powerful weapons to counteract this injustice:  choices.  It is our choices that decide what continues and what stops, and it is our choices that create real change by choosing what to support directly and indirectly.  Of course consumers are not wholly to blame.  It is the responsibility of suppliers and companies to take a more just and environmentally sustainable path in how their products are produced and disposed.  There must be direct action taken against people at every stage of the life cycle who infringe upon the rights of people by letting them bear the unfair burden of environmental degradation.  The information is out there, it is a matter of whether or not people choose to find it and do something once they find it.

1 Comment

  1. Not only all that but the metals that are recycled in the poorer countries are alloyed, resulting in gold, for example, being used which has considerable lead in it.

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