Long gone are the days when your Nokia ‘brick’ of a phone could last countless hours without charging and years of use. Now our devices do much more for us and get updated far more regularly. With Apple and Samsung caught in legal battles over the perceived use of planned obsolescence, it has to be asked: how much is our desire to have the latest technology impacting our environment?
If you didn’t know, Apple made a statement late last year saying that they use techniques to slow down their older model phones in order to prevent their phones from malfunctioning. While this was related to their Lithium-ion batteries becoming less effective over time, people have taken this as an admission that the company has been using planned obsolescence for capitalistic gain. The French are now suing Apple over this issue because that the practice of planned obsolescence is illegal in France.
In a statement reported by the Independent, Laetitia Vasseur, co-founder of the French organization Halte à l’Obsolescence Programmée (HOP), made clear why it is such an important issue; “These practises are unacceptable and can not go unpunished. It is our mission to defend consumers and the environment against this waste organized by Apple”.
Like so many other global issues primarily stemming from developed nations, this waste has a habit of ending up in less developed nations. The issue is prolific enough that in 1998, multiple African countries developed the Bamako Convention; prohibiting importation of hazardous waste. Yet waste still arrives to the countries in the form of donated electronics that inevitably do not last forever. In China e-waste is now an environmental catastrophe due to the immense amounts entering the country. The unsafe breakdown methods and harmful emissions are not just impacting the environment, but the health of the people too.
In China, the production of Lithium-ion batteries is leaving villages covered in soot, water unsafe to drink, and air visibly polluted by particles that shine by night and appear as a grey dust by day. The pollution is coming from graphite that is mined for Lithium-ion batteries. Those batteries are used most notably by smartphone manufacturers such as Samsung and Apple, as well as companies that produce electric cars. Apple has stated they now use synthetically manufactured rather than mined graphite, but not when this change occurred.
However, graphite is not the only environmental resource being used in our smartphones. Many of the materials used are finite so not only are they environmentally harmful to mine, they are also long lasting well beyond their point of use. According to Greenpeace there have been some 7 billion smartphones produced in the last ten years.5 If this figure is a little difficult to conceptualize, Nokia is still one of the biggest manufacturers of mobile phones and they alone produce a phone every nine seconds.
Another report says 2013 saw 46 million tons of e-waste created. The waste includes mercury, cadmium, chromium, and glass, all substances that have the potential to be harmful and toxic. There are programs for recycling old electronics, but they are clearly not being used all that often. Stores like Best Buy and Staples have reportedly recycled 500,000 tons and 6,350 tons of e-waste respectively, numbers that don‘t provide solutions to the growing problem.
Some producers are leaning toward more eco-friendly design, such as Motorola, LG and Sony Ericsson. On top of this, companies producing electronics are increasingly being made accountable for collecting and disposing of their products once they are no longer usable, however there is still a huge amount of waste to be dealt with.
The e-waste problem is by no means limited to smartphones, but there is always a push for bigger and better. With companies regularly releasing new phones, even if they are not intentionally creating products that will be short lived, the number of unused devices continues to grow at an astounding rate. Like all things, over consumption and minimally- used items are going to have an environmental impact. If you want to update your phone, but you don’t want to contribute to this growing problem, you should take a look at local places to recycle. Chances are there is something in your local area to help you in your sustainable efforts.
Written by Annalisse Crosswell
Please note that opinions expressed are the author’s own. They do not necessarily reflect the views and values of The Blank Page