The True Costs of Staying Connected

By Katie Stevens, Sustainable Utah Blog Writing Intern

It’s that time of year again.  Many of us will be busting through shopping malls on Black Friday, hoping to steal some of the best deals on our favorite products. No doubt, as Apple has just recently released their newest line of iPhones, these devices will be among the most popular items purchased this holiday season.

Like many electronics, cell phones get “old;” we buy the new version, throw out our old one, and then continue that cycle at a rather quick pace. Our capitalist economy pushes companies, like Apple, to continually grow. In order to do that, companies have to entice consumers with the novelty of new products. Buying new devices every couple of years may feel nice, although it considerably thins out our wallets. But, do you know the environmental and human costs of this purchasing habit?

Drawer of old electronics.

Electronics can be linked to environmental degradation, human injustice, human health issues, and environmental pollution — to name a few.

To begin, production of our electronics requires raw materials that need to be extracted from the Earth. Mining for these materials is often done in the Global South, where companies can get the biggest bang for their buck because miners often work in poor conditions and for minimal wages.  In some scenarios, the money made by these mines goes directly to support violent militias responsible for wreaking havoc on human life.  In these cases, the materials extracted are considered “conflict minerals.” In addition to the unfair labor, miners use methods that are not only bad for the environment, but also can cause devastating health effects for the workers.

After materials are scoured from the earth, they are placed in the hands of manufacturing companies. Like mining operations, many manufacturing sites are located far from the United States. Foxconn, with ties to Apple and other big brands, is a Taiwanese multinational electronics manufacturing company with a particularly rough history. Just in the past decade, two explosions, at least 18 suicide attempts, and harsh working conditions have plagued Foxconn factory workers. Both explosions were found to be caused by aluminum dust, which employees were told to use to polish iPads.

Some companies are working towards more sustainable, ethical practices through the extraction, production, and manufacturing processes of their devices. However, these companies and others are still producing new products, sometimes on an annual basis. According to a report done by the Environmental Protection Agency, 438 million new electronic devices were sold in 2009. What happened to all of these electronics that reached the end of their life?

Collection of old Apple packaging.

Collection of old Apple packaging.

An investigation done by the Basel Action Network (BAN) tracked the movements of a couple hundred devices to find out. When we recycle some of these devices, they don’t always end up where we would expect. Some recycling companies, through economic struggles, turn to shipping some of the products overseas. Some of the devices tracked by BAN ended up across the world, where environmental safety and health laws do not exist. This is concerning, considering many of the materials used to make electronic products are considered toxic. Environmental and human health concerns arise when we dump these toxic devices (chemicals can leak into the soil and end up in our water and food) and when workers come in contact with dangerous materials without safety equipment. The Basel Action Network has created a list of responsible recyclers who do not ship toxic products abroad here.

I am not writing this article to shame those who will buy new electronics this year (because I’m one of them!), but to challenge you to think about the relationship between these environmental and social issues and our devices. Think about the hands, the labor, and the hardships and health of others. Think about the ripped earth and the constant stream of materials being taken from it. Think about our global environment when our hazardous waste is not properly disposed.

In our economy, consumers can be made powerful by knowledge and by how we choose to spend our money. Instead of purchasing a new phone every year, consider prolonging the life of your old one; purchase a new battery, a better case to protect your device, and fix what can be fixed. This holiday season use your power as a consumer to curb electronic demand.

Katie is an Environmental and Sustainability Studies & Health, Policy, and Society Major.

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