by Theresa Peluso

Have you ever thought about the birth, life and death of all the things you buy and use?  Where do they come from?  How do they end up in your possession?  What is their lifespan?  What happens to them afterwards?  Hearkening back to the Reader’s Digest articles in the 1980s about various human organs – as in “I Am Joe’s Heart” – which provided clear, well-written explanations about how our lifestyles affect our bodies, I thought it would be a useful exercise to reflect on some of the stuff we buy and use, and how our lifestyles affect the natural environment.  So, without further delay, I present – Jane’s cellphone!

I’m certainly no beauty, although I once was the belle at the ball, six years ago, when my owner – let’s call her Jane — first received me as a gift from her husband. I weigh 100 grams, am dull grey in color, and have a rather thick middle – about 2.5 centimetres.  Jane isn’t one of those avid users of technology, and just uses me for emergency calls, which is fortunate for me, because that’s all I can do – make and receive calls.  It also means that I’ll be around for a while – at least until Bell Sanyo, my manufacturer, decides to make me obsolete by discontinuing production of my many components.  Unlike some of the newer cellphones and other electronic gadgets, my battery is actually replaceable – it’s not welded on to the card, so that should help to extend my life.

These days, six years in a cellphone’s life is like 255 human years.  Most people now replace their cellphones every two years.  The latest cellphones are sleek, wafer-thin, colourful gadgets that can perform a myriad of functions.  People are actually willing to pay over $700 every two years to have the very latest in this technology.  So if you bought a new phone every two years from the time you were 18, by age 60 you would have used and discarded 20 cellphones.  (And you probably would have spent about $14,000 on cellphones alone!) Multiply that by 6 billion (the current estimated number of cellphone users in the world), and you would get 120 billion discarded phones over 40 years.  That’s a pretty big number.  Think of all the raw materials and labour that go into producing those phones, and what happens afterwards.

Inside my plastic casing, I have more than 500 components.  Many of these contain toxic heavy metals such as lead, mercury, cadmium, beryllium, and tantalum.  These toxic chemicals may be necessary to provide all my eye-popping features (at least they were considered eye-popping six years ago!), but they generated a lot of misery and death from the time of their extraction, and may continue to do so when I reach the end of my life.

Let’s discuss tantalum, a rare-earth metal.  Roughly 80% of the world supply of coltan, from which tantalum is extracted, is found in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).  Tantalum is in high demand for manufacturing nearly all electronic devices because of its unique properties for storing electrical charge. The mining methods used in DRC are very primitive.  This country is known to have children working in its mines.  The miners, who wear no protective gear, are exposed to radioactive elements and toxic metals, which poison not only them, but the air, soil and groundwater as well.  Because of the huge demand for tantalum, miners invade forests and national parks to find it, destroying the habitat of the animals that live there, including the mountain gorilla (the population of which has been halved as a result). The miners are often exploited by corrupt groups like militias, and have no recourse to government assistance if they are abused. The proceeds from smuggling tantalum out of the country are often used to buy the weapons used in the ongoing civil war there. (Information taken from University of Waterloo’s website Earth Sciences Museum, and from Wikipedia)

After these metals are mined and loaded into containers, what happens next?  They are shipped to factories in China and elsewhere, made into a variety of components, and assembled into all these clever gadgets, including cellphones like me.  The people who assemble them often work in conditions that would be illegal here in Canada.  Last September, China Labor Watch published a report identifying eight factories that make parts for Samsung, with the following labour violations:  “well over 100 hours of forced overtime work per month, unpaid work, standing for 11 to 12 hours while working, underage workers, severe age and gender discrimination, abuse of student and labor dispatch workers, a lack of worker safety, and verbal and physical abuse. Moreover, workers lack of any effective internal grievance channel by which to rectify these transgressions.”  As we know from last month’s report on the fire that killed more than 600 workers in a clothing factory in Bangladesh, worker exploitation is more prevalent than we might like to believe. Finally, all these snazzy new cellphones are loaded onto ships, transported to cities all over the world, and snapped up by consumers like Jane’s husband. So, to summarize, I may look harmless, but a great deal of environmental damage and worker abuse went into making me and my fellow cellphones.

Like you, I don’t like to contemplate the possibility of my demise, but the truth is that my life will come to an end at some point.  I know Jane won’t throw me in the garbage because she has read an article on the topic on Wikipedia, that states:

In the United States, an estimated 70% of heavy metals in landfills comes from discarded electronics, while electronic waste represents only 2% of America’s trash in landfills. While some recycle, 7% of mobile phone owners still throw away their old phones. Mobile phones are “considered hazardous waste” in California; many chemicals in such phones leach from landfills into the groundwater system. Environmental advocacy group Greenpeace claims that the soldering of the iPhone battery into its handset hinders its being recycled.

Most cell phones contain precious metals and plastics that can be recycled to save energy and resources that would otherwise be required to mine or manufacture. When placed in a landfill, these materials can pollute the air and contaminate soil and drinking water. Cell phone coatings are typically made of lead, which is a toxic chemical that can result in adverse health effects when exposed to it in high levels. The circuit board on cell phones can be made of copper, gold, lead, zinc, beryllium, tantalum, coltan, and other raw materials that would require significant resources to mine and manufacture. This is why it is important to recycle old cell phones and source these increasingly scarce materials whenever possible.

Electronic waste (e-waste) is a global problem; especially since many developed countries, including the U.S., ship their discarded electronic devices to less developed parts of the world. Often times, the e-waste is improperly dismantled and burned, producing toxic emissions harmful to waste site workers, children, and nearby communities. Therefore, it is important for cell phone users to dispose of and recycle their devices responsibly and ethically.

Since Jane is an avid environmentalist, she may try to give me away through the Freecycle website, although she doubts she’ll get any takers for an ancient cellphone like me, or she may take me to the WEEE (Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment) depot in at the Rebound Store in Mississippi Mills (2470 Concession 8, Ramsay Road).  This means that all the reusable materials will be separated and resold to make new electronic devices, and all the hazardous waste will be safely disposed of.

My successor will most likely be a green cellphone, which Jane will identify by checking the Greenpeace website.  That means her new phone will use post-consumer waste, contain a minimum of hazardous substances, be manufactured under safe working conditions, and be recyclable. Better yet, since Jane doesn’t let advertisers try to convince her that she’s an old-fashioned stick-in-the-mud if she doesn’t shell out for a state-of-the-art phone device, she may try to find a used cellphone.

Well, I may be old (as cellphones go), and my functions may be limited, but I’ve no doubt you’ve marvelled at my display of knowledge as you read this article, and wouldn’t hesitate for a second to call me a “smart phone”!