Poison for the Environment: The Ecological Hazards Posed by Your Favorite Cell Phones

by Komayal Hassan
Biohazard Symbol

In today’s feverish world, it’s a simple truth that no one can do for long without cell phones. Our fast-paced, competitive styles of living have seen to this. But the environmental toll exacted by these necessary, new-age gadgets is worrying. And if we don’t come up with smart, sustainable solutions to counter this impact, we’ll be in for a grand undoing!

In this blog, we’ll focus on the toxic materials that go into a typical cell phone manufacture. Heavy metals and other substances that spell poison for both animal and plant life. And not to mention for the ecological environment, land and ozone-inclusive, at large. 

But first, some facts, statistics, and an overview of working towards a solution.

The Average Life of a Cell Phone

In the U.S alone, the average user retention life of a smartphone is 2 years. And in most cases, people don’t discard their old phones due to some hardware defect. They’re more interested in purchasing the latest release in their preferred line. Take the annual frenzy that surrounds Apple’s latest iPhone model releases, for instance. 

Several smartphone models also suffer from quick firmware redundancy. This is where their operating systems, through lack of company updates, become outdated. A situation where new app versions don’t download or install. 

A good example of this is the Samsung Galaxy Note 8 – released September 2017. Some regional models of the phone, as of November 2021, only provide support for up to Android Version 7.1.1 (Nougat). This renders a lot of popular apps, like Slack (a work messaging platform), unusable.

Both of these concerns signal greater demand for newer, more up-to-date, phones. This want, in turn, means larger and speedier manufacturing outputs. Resulting in an ever-increasing carbon footprint.

All bad news for the environment. Plus, a major reason why manufacturing practices need urgent reform. Both in new phone model release frequencies and existing model production. The subjects of Right to Repair.

Right to Repair

Public legislation movements like the Right to Repair offer some ecological hope. Their call on device manufacturers to build third-party-fixable phones offers two-fold benefits. 

First, they take tech companies to task on their production processes. They aim to both lessen device manufacturing output and new model/line launches (as discussed).

Second, they force them to shore up the local repairs industry. 

They do this by convincing them to use more procurable device components. Assembly processes, like the soldering of a cell phone board, are also targeted. All in the attempt to make gadget repairs a non-company-input-requiring issue. A task that any individual with the required training can tackle.

From the legal standpoint, they draw on the anti-competitive argument. They stress that hard-to-fix devices and company-manufactured components foreshadow monopolistic intent. Meaning that purchasers don’t get the right to repair them on their own, cheap, terms.

Consider the $599 company screen repair cost of the Apple iPhone 13 Pro Max. Almost half the cost of a new phone replacement! 

The success of Right to Repair is anticipated to subvert these earth-and-consumer harming policies. 

But the movement, as expected, faces setbacks from Big Tech. Companies like Apple, Amazon, and Microsoft that continue to lobby with hard currency. Committed to both enforcing and retaining laws that support their interests.

So the onus is on us – the consumers – to take up the mantle and press for change. The safety of both the environment and our pockets depends on it.

Toxic Materials Used in Cell Phone Production

The chart below provides a fair estimation of the raw materials used in your everyday cell phone production.

Reproduced from River Publishers – Environmental Hazards and Health Risks Associated with the Use of Mobile Phones

As you can see, plastics form the most abundant material channeled into the process. Their hazards posed for marine and land-animal life are well known. We’ve all seen the heart-rending images of fish and seagulls becoming victims of the scourge of discarded polythenes by human-frequented riverbeds.

Several of these compounds:

  • Arsenic
  • Antimony
  • Beryllium
  • Cadmium
  • Copper
  • Lead
  • Lithium
  • Mercury
  • Nickel
  • Zinc

are called Persistent, Bioaccumulative and Toxic (PBTs) chemicals by environmentalists. This is in reference to their adverse health impacts. 

Their ‘persistence’ comes from the fact that they resist environmental decomposition. Arsenic, lead, and mercury fall into this category. Due to their elemental nature, they can’t be broken down any further.

Some cell phone material compounds, like lead, are also bioaccumulative. Animal, and specifically marine, life always remain at risk of exposure to them. And over time, this contamination leads to a toxic surplus: the state where the consumption of their meat leads to horrible health consequences. 

The cases of wild and farmed salmon, with their high levels of mercury, are well known. These foods are particularly dangerous for pregnant/nursing mothers and infants. Upon consumption, they cross through the mammary glands into breast milk; which piles up in the growing stomachs of infants. They are also known to pass through the placental membrane over to the developing fetus, causing brain damage.

Brominated Flame Retardants (BFRs)

Brominated flame retardants, or BFRs, are chemical compounds added to cell phone plastics to make them flame resistant. The problem with these chemicals is that they are highly toxic to humans. Their impact on brain health, again, is well documented; known to result in gross tissue retardation.

So the prescription to avoid their use comes about as obvious.

The Bottom Line

Here, we’ve discussed some of the main cell phone production culprits that cause havoc to both human health and the environment. There are no two ways to think about this issue; the degrading impact of discarded device parts, leaching toxins into the earth, is a catastrophe. 

But knowing that we humans, in this day and age, cannot hope to do without these tools, a workable compromise has to be reached. One where device users agree to retain their cell phones for at least 4-5 years (often cited as the functional life of a typical model). And also where these gadgets are relinquished – for recycling purposes – in an environmentally conservative manner. 

Conscious efforts like these would not only be ecologically preserving, they would also be economically beneficial. Consider the business created for cell phone repair shops in the local community. 

Additionally, device longevity – with popular brands deciding to get with the Right to Repair bandwagon – would create the space for new manufacturers to market their wares without facing fierce competition; resulting in the overall lowering of mobile phone costs. 

From the environmental standpoint, we have to acknowledge that climate change is real. It has been very rightly termed as an ‘existential threat for the species’. We’ve established that hasty cell phone throws, well before their functional life is over, only serve to heighten its impact. And so it stands to reason that both individuals and national governments should do everything in their power to slow it – if not stop it – in its tracks. 

Before the judgment of nature should come upon us.

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