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Let’s think about that mobile phone you have. It is your gateway to the world, whether you use it for communicating with others, keep up with your social media, or accessing the seemingly endless amounts of information on the world wide web, they have almost become the center piece of our lives. What we don’t see is how bad these phones are for the environment. Many toxic materials like lead, zinc, and chromium to name a few, are frequently found in phones and will have considerable consequences if nothing is done soon (Chen, Chen, Li, Wang, Chen, & Xu, 2018). With these materials, the impact of producing, using, and disposing of them, cell phones have a very substantial impact on our environment that not many people are aware of.
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Let’s start at the very beginning of making our beloved cell phones. As it is with most things we have, the raw materials have to be found and mined. This creates one of the worst problems in producing cell phones. The three most prominent metals in our phones by weight are iron at twenty percent, aluminum at fourteen percent, and finally copper at seven percent (Byrne and Hudson-Edwards, 2018). With the mining of these metals comes large amounts of “mine tailings”, or the solid and liquid waste that comes from the extraction of these metals (Byrne and Hudson-Edwards, 2018). The tailings are hauled off to landfill-esque areas which can be can be up to several square kilometers in size (Byrne and Hudson-Edwards, 2018). Basically speaking, these “landfills” are very large ponds that that hold all of the tailings. With this, the ponds run a risk of spilling their contents into nearby areas. That is exactly what happened on August 4th, 2014. In the Cariboo region of Central British Columbia, one of these toxic ponds breached, and spilled over 6.5 million gallons of contaminated materials into the nearby Polley Lake and surrounding waterways (Moskowitz, 2014). A immediate state of emergency was declared for the area around the lake, as it was a source of water (Moskowitz, 2014). The effects of this disaster are still being felt today, both economically and environmentally as the mine that used the lake has since closed down and laid off many workers and the quality of the water is still under question and may be an issue for decades to come (Moskowitz, 2014). As bad as this instance was, it was not an isolated incident. There have been over 40 different tailing pond spills in the last decade, and we still don’t know the long term effects of them (Byrne and Hudson-Edwards, 2018).
Next up in our phones life is us buying them and using them. One of the first things we have to do whenever we get a new device is charging it. Seems harmless right? Well, not so much. Just like most things we have, phones require electricity to charge their batteries. While you might not think your phone uses that much electricity to charge, you have to remember that there are almost 4.8 Billion cell phone users worldwide (eMarketer, 2016). Charging a typical phone takes around 5.5 watt-hours per night, which over the course of a year would be about 2 kilowatt-hours total (Helman, 2013). Multiplying that by every phone user gives us about 9.6 billion kWh per year just to charge phones. Using a emissions calculator from the EPA, that is equal to 14,966,410,480 pounds of CO2 being released into the air every year. To put that into perspective, that’s equivalent to the emissions of 1,441,327 cars being driven for a year. And that’s just to charge phones! While charging a phone seems harmless, you have to remember that there are still billions of other people doing the same thing. That adds up quick.
Alas, your phone has reached the end of its life. It is time to upgrade to the newest model, even though its only seemed like a year since you got your last one. So you do what you think is right, and you recycle it. Big win for the ecosystem? Probably not. In fact, only fifteen to twenty percent of electronic waste is actually recycled, and even then, this recycling method isn’t much better than just throwing our electronics in a landfill (McCarthy, 2018). Most of these recycled devices get exported to countries with weak e-waste laws, so the devices can be harvested of their precious metals, and the rest being burned or thrown in a landfill (McCarthy, 2018). Even then, with new advances in different parts of the cell phone, less of these precious metals are being used, and the cost to harvest them is becoming greater than the resale price of the metals (McCarthy, 2018). If we keep following this track we’re on, there will eventually be nowhere for these devices to go after people get rid of them. But there are multiple solutions to address these issues. The easiest way of disposal for our old devices is to simply resell them. This can be done very simply on sites like eBay or Craigslist, where there will more than likely be a buyer. Another method is to donate them to second hand stores where it can find a new home. Finally you can find a licensed recycler that abides by strict regulation that can take care of disposal for you (McCarthy, 2018).
After all this, one may argue that “Well, we can’t just not get new phones! They are already almost obsolete 3 years after you buy them!” While I agree with this point, there is something we could do about it. If we can get designers at major technology companies to make more modular devices, we would never have to completely upgrade to new devices every few months. Modular devices have parts designed to be interchangeable, that way we never have to completely upgrade the whole device. With this I believe that we can cut down on the overall environmental impacts of creating, using, and disposing our mobile devices.
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Mine tailing disasters, absurd energy usage, and unhealthy recycling tactics are the seemingly “normal” risks we are taking buying these devices every so often. At what point will the risk overrun the reward? Right now it may not seem like a big problem, but we have to keep future generations in mind too. If we stay on the track we are now, there might just not be a future generation. Is the few hundred dollars you spend on the new device really the only price you’re paying for that new cell phone?
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