Electronics Wasteland

The gadget geek’s environmental dilemma


Today was a big day; a day most gadget nerds wait the whole year for. It’s the announcement of the next biggest, thinest, lightest, brightest, gadget-iest smartphone yet, the new iPhone. Over the past 6 or so years us techno-junkies have waited with bated breath for these announcements. All the while dreaming, discussing and pontificating about what the new device would possibly do and how it might blow our minds in ways we couldn’t even comprehend. In most cases the press event itself is crushed by the weight of anticipation created by the droves of passionate fans. When the event passes and the nerd hangover sets in the world has yet another thing in it that we all must have; and oh boy do these things sell!

I’m a self identifying gadget geek. I follow the scene with excitement and fantasies of a future that’s just at our finger tips. Today I watched every second of Apple’s announcement I could. I groaned at the poor streaming that made it nearly impossible to hear every important syllable coming from Tim Cook’s mouth. It’s the modern day equivalent of an old man wrestling with his bunny ears antenna while his favourite team is about to score. As the announcement went on they revealed the iPhone every geek knew was coming due the numerous leaks. After the phone segment was finished and the crowds were satiated, Tim Cook pulled the classic Jobs-ian move and said he has ‘one more thing’ to share and we all cheered while holding our breath. What was to be revealed was the feverishly anticipated Apple Watch that has been rumoured for years. Pupils dilated soaking in every pixel of the live stream — which worked perfectly now— as they showed every nook and cranny of the product. When this event was over, instead of just one, we had two new shiny things to lust for. sigh.

After watching the live stream, and perhaps coming back to my senses, I scanned around my desk and saw older smartphones, iPads, point and shoot cameras, cables, portable hard drives and more. Along with that I had boxes stashed away in my closet with more even older hard drives, routers, modems, and enough usb/network/firewire/lightning/power cables to run around the equator of the Earth about 3 times. I thought to myself, every time I buy a new phone, I’m displacing my old one. Then I thought about the millions of others out there doing the same thing. Where do all these old electronics go to die?

It was a sobering moment to say the least.

I consider myself a progressive and conscientious person. It definitely concerns me that we are losing touch with our natural environment and consuming resources at rates that are well beyond sustainable. Up to this point I’d given gadgets a free pass simply due to the joy they created for me. However when thinking about the scale of products like the iPhone and how many are sold every year, it was not hard to imagine a troubling bigger picture.

Let me help paint this picture by tossing out some numbers to think about. In the last 9 months, Apple has sold well over 100 million iPhones around the world. If you want to talk Android, they project over a 1 billion smartphones will ship in 2014. That’s a staggering amount of plastic, glass, silicon, lithium, gold, platinum and other rare earth metals; some toxic some not. Looking back to 2013, 1 billion smartphones were sold and there were 1.45 billion smartphone users in the world. Looking forward into 2014 it’s projected that companies will sell over 1.2 billion smartphones. This year a quarter of the population of the globe is said to use a smartphone, or 1.76 billion people. An increase of 300 million users. Doing the math: 1.2 billion smartphones sold — 300 million new smartphone users = 900 million smartphones left. Does that mean 900 million phones are replacements? Probably not completely, but the actual number would probably be scary big. For example: it’s projected that next year phone replacements could make up 80% of Apple’s iPhone sales. Using this stat with 2014's sales numbers, that’s 120 million iPhone replacements. Given Apple’s market share is roughly 18% compared to Android’s 78%, that 900 million number doesn’t seem far off the truth.

That is an incredible amount of hardware.

These numbers bring up a troubling subject around consumer electronics, and specifically smartphones. There is immense pressure for the product companies to continue to increase their sales by increasing the output of electronics. They’re forced to find ways to constantly re-invent their gadgets so they remain targets of consumer’s desire. Rapid software innovations make our older phones sluggish and fail to perform in ways that it used to. The wear and tear of everyday life takes a toll on the devices and accidents happen. The result of the rapid increase in innovation and wear and tear creates a degraded user experience for those on aging devices. The problem increases as electronics become critical to the functioning of our daily lives. The more these products become essential, the more we demand them to function at a very high level. Reading through a cracked screen, or dealing with the sluggishness of the new operating system on an older model just doesn’t cut it. Upgrading becomes a normal and expected thing and the old gadgets are sent to pasture. You could argue that consumer electronics are created to be disposable or in other words electronics are created with planned obsolescence at their core. As much as the positives of planned obsolescence move us all forward features wise, the environmental cost mounts on the other side.

So, what’s the solution here? I am, in no imaginable words, saying that we should stop creating amazing products like the iPhone and I don’t suggest we all join a commune and eat copious amounts of granola together — although that might be fun. I think it’s first about being aware of the cycle we’ve caught ourselves in and then as consumers create demand for doing things in a different ways. Little shifts in our priorities will go a long way in making these products less landfill prone. I think by making it well known that we all demand environmental responsibility in our electronics makers that it will require them to listen because if they don’t we as customers will stop spending our cash on the products they make. It starts and ends with us, we need to hold them accountable.

Here are a few ideas to start:

Built to last

Demand research and development be put into creating stronger products that don’t fail as fast. There is nothing like having a product that shows its worth over the long run. It builds a strong sense of loyalty when you can rely on a product to function. I personally would more likely buy a second product from a company that has shown they make products that last. Backing the product with a longer warranty will also be a great step forward.

Repairable

When your built-to-last product does break down it’s comforting knowing you can fix it yourself or you can go back to where you bought it and have it fixed there. It’s incredibly frustrating having to throw something away that works in almost every way but simply needs a new part that can’t be had easily. If we can spend a little more time on making products beautiful and repairable, I think progress has been made.

Innovation

Sometimes people equate innovation with new features and functions. Instead of more new bells and whistles perhaps innovate around construction and engineering so the product’s components can be disassembled and recycled in easier ways. Working towards a 100% recyclable phone would certainly be a worthy cause. Knowing that my phone was almost completely recycled would make me much more content with a short life-span electronics device. Not to mention reducing the questionable practises around mining rare earth elements.

Here is a short 3 part documentary that outlines the subject in greater detail:


As a gadget junkie I’m certainly at a crossroads at this moment. No doubt would I love to own a new shiny iPhone 6 and Watch, but at the same time I have a fully functioning iPhone 5 and I don’t really need either one of these products to enrich my life further. I might be happier knowing that this time around I opted to keep my old phone because what matters most is not necessarily on my phone, but outside my front door instead. Fingers crossed my iPhone5 doesn’t fail on me.

Note: It might sound like I am throwing Apple fully and completely under the bus in this article, however it should be noted that they are doing a lot more than other smartphone manufacturers in the industry. I focused on Apple because it’s what I use. I shudder to think what’s going on in other organizations that are less concerned and transparent.