A closer look at post-consumption waste of consumer electronics

Digital media might not grow on trees, but its still destroying our forests.

As we continue our study of current issues in mass communication, it’s important to recognize the many possibilities digital media brings to our society. It’s equally important for us to take stock of how the technologies developed to support our growing appetite for digital media consumes vast amounts of energy and creates toxic waste.

That last point is what I’ve spent the last few weeks really exploring.

My journey technically started in December, when I shattered my iPhone 5. I spent many months talking to repairmen and my phone carrier in the hopes of repairing and keeping my phone. Ultimately, that wasn’t a viable option. I found I would have to replace it.

After I got a new iPhone 6, I was tasked with getting rid of the old iPhone 5. For a long time, my family and I have just kept our old cellular phones in a drawer in our kitchen — unsure of what to do with technology that we no longer want but can’t bear to get rid of.

But I was determined to do something useful with my iPhone. I was certain my phone couldn’t be refurbished. By the time I was through with it, it was beginning to leak some sort of internal liquid (note: no one at my local Apple or Sprint stores could account for what this liquid could be) and large glass pieces were missing from the cover.

So my main option was to recycle my phone. And I set out to figure out just what the industry around recycling iPhones looks like.

Media consumption fuels planned obsolescence

The reason my phone (a phone that was reinforced with heavy duty Gorilla Glass) likely broke after more than two years of use is because of a phenomenon called planned obsolescence, which is where companies intentionally limit a product’s lifespan.

In some ways, this is good. As mobile applications come out and new media debuts, we all want a phone that is technologically capable of supporting those new developments.

But in other ways, planned obsolescence creates unnecessary waste that costs consumers money and wastes resources. The different iPhone chargers, for instance, don’t represent any new innovation. They’re just an example of planned obsolescence that costs consumers money and waste resources.

For a long time, technology columnists have begged consumers to keep their phones longer or buy used technology. These experts fear an e-waste crisis — one in which the toxic elements in our precious consumer electronics pose grave consequences once they’ve sat in landfills for many decades.

But its those same critics who label the latest iPhone as uninteresting and boring, pressuring technology companies to debut newer, sleeker media to appease our tech-hungry appetites.

A look forward: the impending e-waste crisis

Screen Shot 2015-04-23 at 12.41.51 PM

So the massive consumer electronics industry is intentionally creating products that will likely stop working after two years. In 2010, the Environmental Protection Agency found that Americans dispose of more than 2.4 million tons of electronic devices and only recycle 27 percent of those devices.

What’s more, the recycling rate for mobile phones is much lower — just 11 percent of cell phones that are disposed of each year are recycled. That same report found that Americans were throwing away 416,000 mobile phones per day.

That’s terrifying. If we stay on this path, we are absolutely headed to a place where the media technologies we love will sit stagnating in waste lagoons releasing their toxic fumes into an environment already weakened by our longstanding reliance on coal.

In response, media and technology companies have to begin to develop their recycling arms. Apple’s current recycling initiative to provide customers with free options for recycling their outdated technology is admirable, but it doesn’t go far enough.

It’s not enough to offer consumers the option of recycling. It should be the expectation from the minute consumers purchase an Apple product. The packaging, which is often superfluous and wasteful anyways, should come with a label consumers could use to send their old electronics to a Sims Recycling Center, the company Apple uses for its recycling services.

It would be a win for the environment, which means it would be a win for Apple.

Companies should also develop the sale of their refurbished technological devices. The market for used electronics largely exists on websites like Amazon and Craigslist. If it were brought into the mainstream, then consumers would be more likely to opt into this more sustainable system. This is something that wouldn’t cost these companies any money. For the most part, many carriers and technology companies will take customer’s old devices. Therefore, this would be an opportunity for companies to make more money off products they’ve already sold once.

In other cases, companies will have to begin to choose to stop chasing profits in the name of environmental sustainability. Just as many companies have moved away from using tantalum in their products because of the dangers of mining the element, companies have to stop developing  products that don’t represent any new innovation and only waste resources and cost consumers money.

I’m hopeful that media and technology companies will realize the error of their ways before 2025 so we don’t have to make plans for how to deal with harmful consequences of e-waste lagoons. However, these are the same companies that largely trumpeted the benefits of the fact that digital media doesn’t grow on trees.

But none seem to realize quite yet that digital media is still destroying our forests


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