Owning a phone is, in the modern era, less of an expectation and more of a necessity. The convenience and functionality that smartphones and similar devices provide is such that they are always in high demand in developed countries, particularly the United States. And, with technology always advancing, there is also a desire for the newest and best electronics. In fact, some technology is designed for shorter longevity, with the intent of spurring consumers to purchase newer models. It’s called planned obsolescence, and though it may seem to be a ploy amongst companies to get consumers to buy more, the demand for the most advanced product out there still fuels the buying habits of many.
But what happens when electronics are used up? Even when obsolete or broken, components can still possess value. This is what has lead to the practice of e-recycling, encouraged by the EPA and backed by several states in the form of laws forbidding the disposal of electronic devices the same way as regular garbage. This sounds appealing in theory, but these practices have lead to an estimated 23 percent of electronic waste being exported to developing nations without the infrastructure for proper and safe recycling.
Part of the intent behind e-waste exportation is to allow these nations to catch up to other countries and have access to the technology that still works. And, when it doesn’t, it can be recycled for usable parts and materials. However, the processes to recycle these materials can, even under good conditions, be harmful to both workers and the environment. Handling e-waste could be done domestically, but it comes at a higher price, to the point where the process can be more costly than the components derived from it.
China, India, Ghana, and Nigeria are all countries that frequently import e-waste from the United States. The processes used often lead to the burning of plastic, a practice that exposes workers—often children—to toxic fumes. Additionally, e-recycling has contaminated soil and water in these countries. Notably, the EU has outlawed the practice of exporting e-waste, leaving the United States to come up with a new solution that is more sustainable. However, with the costs associated with recycling, it is downright impossible to survive as a responsible recycler.
The issue then becomes a matter of who needs to bear the burden. Passing legislation to limit e-waste is a long and arduous process, leaving it up to tech companies and consumers themselves to try to make a difference. Apple is very conscious of this problem, working with recyclers to safely dispose of e-waste. Their efforts focus on recycling locally, to cut down on emissions associated with shipping. Partnerships with recycling facilities ensures that their products are properly disposed of, and the company has held events dedicated to accumulating e-waste for safe recycling.
“Nothing is dumped unsafely in developing countries, which is a common problem in our industry,” said Apple’s 2016 Environmental Responsibility Report.
Beyond that, Apple and similar companies can make an impact by changing the materials they use to manufacture their devices, especially considering the quick rate of obsolescence in the industry. Additionally, many obsolete devices may sit unused, particularly in cases of mobile devices.
This is where a difference can even be made on the individual level. Retailers now offer options for customers to bring in and recycle their e-waste, though this is often a bit more difficult to discern. If you’re interested in being more sustainable with your outdated electronics, visit the e-Stewards website for more information on how to find a certified waste facility.
E-waste, though often outside of one’s consciousness, is a major problem worldwide. That said, like any other sustainability issue, people working to be more cognizant of these issues is the first step to fixing them. So when you go to buy your next smartphone, consider finding ways to ensure that your old phone is properly squared away.