Object of Concern Paper
For my object of concern research, I have chosen apple’s iPhone. I have chosen the iPhone because it is one of the most used devices each day around the world, but also has a very short life span. Apple updates their iPhones every single year, and because of this a lot of people are choosing to upgrade to the new phone each year, leaving their old devices in an odd place. It is a concern to me personally on what is happening with the millions of still working but “old” iPhones that we are discarding in various ways each and every year, and I would like to find out a little but more about what is happening with them
Apple first introduced the iPhone on June 29th, 2007. It was revolutionary to me, and many others around the world. I couldn’t wrap my head around the combination of the cell phone and the iPod, because these were two devices that I was regularly carrying around with me daily during this time, and the years prior. And that was the thing, I was carrying two devices. I hadn’t really put much thought into the inconvenience that this was back then, because the technology wasn’t there so we hadn’t really even thought of it. However, I do remember a time when my friends and I glued our cell phones back to back with our iPods, as a joke, to try and create just one device we had to carry. Little did we know; big things were coming soon with regards to that.
Apple really did reinvent the cell phone as we knew it back in 2007, and no one has looked back since. In 2007 when the very first was announced, the sales were 1.39 million. Most of these were from early adapters who were just eager to try a new piece of technology. Most recently in the year 2017, the sales of the newest iPhones have been 216.76 million. The numbers compared are astonishing, and looking at a chart the sales went up each new iPhone. Since the iPhone came out in 2007, there has always been a new updated phone each and every year. The difference that comes in each phone is small, usually a better camera and a faster operating chip which improves the phones overall speed and performance.
Overall, cellphone technology is continuing to improve at a staggering rate each year, enough to get people to disregard their old iPhones like they are trash. Cellphone service companies like Verizon and AT&T even encourage their customers to upgrade each year by offering packages that support it. But the question still remains, what happens to our old iPhones after they leave our possession, and what type of effect is it having on our environment if they are indeed no longer being used?
It is September, and a new iPhone has just been announced. You are very excited to get this new iPhone, as a ton of new features and improvements have been announced for it. It will be receiving a new camera that takes much better pictures than your current iPhone, there is also a faster processing chip that Apple created just for this new iPhone. This new lineup of iPhones also comes in a fresh new rose gold color that you just absolutely need to have and show off. You get to the apple store the day it is released, and there are people lined up out the door and around the block. You are a little surprised, but you don’t care much and you get in line and wait in excitement. You eventually make your way to the front, and then you get called to come into the store. The Apple employee greets you and asks how they can help, and you tell them you want the new iPhone. From there, there are two options for your current and now old iPhone. You either hand it in as part of a trade in program (this also goes for the cell service provider stores not just at Apple), or it is deactivated and you take it home with you. One way or another, the iPhone will most likely end up in a landfill, or recycled as E-Waste.
iPhone production mostly takes place in the central Chinese city of Zhengzhou. To start the process, Apple buys each and every component for the iPhone from more than 200 suppliers around the world (David Baroza). Apple then sells the components to the manufacturer in China. “There are 94 production line at the Zhengzhou manufacturing site, and it takes 400 steps to assemble the iPhone, including polishing, soldering, drilling and fitting screws. The facility can produce 500,000 iPhones a day or roughly 350 a minute” (David Baroza). The iPhone is then placed in that white box that we all know and love, wrapped in plastic and placed into the trucks that ware waiting to deliver them to the retailers.
After passing through the customs, which are large facilities that are built just a few hundred yards from the production factory. This where apple either sells the iPhones to Chinese businesses, or the iPhones are resold to Apple to be resold to retailers around the world. The iPhones are then taken to the nearby airport where they are shipped abroad. Three days later, the very same shipment of iPhones in their fresh white boxes arrive in San Francisco, almost 7,000 miles away. The iPhones are then taken to their respective retailers, and sold to consumers.
Risks and Hazards:
iPhones in the majority are recycled as E-Waste. One great thing about the newer iPhones from about 2010 and on is that they have been deemed less harmful to the environment. The use of mercury and lead were eliminated in 2009, and 2006. Display glass is now arsenic-free as well. In addition, PVC and phthalates are not being used anymore, and brominated flame retardant was eliminated in 2008. This is a huge step forward for the iPhone not being as harmful to the environment.
iPhones that make their way into the landfills leach toxic chemicals into the soil. In fact, electronics account for up to 70 percent of landfills toxic waste” (Peter Holgate). In order to avoid the guilty feeling that comes with just throwing your iPhone away to be sent off into the landfill, a lot of people send them to recycle centers or E-Waste collections. This is the move that helps us feel good about ourselves, and makes us feel like we did the right thing. The eco-friendly solution to getting rid of an iPhone. But many of us still wonder what happens to our devices after we do this, and if they are truly handled in a way that is eco-friendly. The afterlife of an iPhone starts out by the recycler checking to see if phone is in any kind of condition to be reused, especially refurbished. It is common for the phones that do past these tests and that are able to be reused, to be shipped to foreign countries for reuse. For example, the Motorola Razr was a very popular phone in Latin America long after its popularity faded in the United States (Peter Holgate). For the iPhones that are not able to be reused and refurbished, powerful shredders tear them apart at recycling centers. The metal components are smelted down, and the precious metals such as the small amounts of gold and palladium are recovered from the devices. The unfortunate part of this cycle, is that the vast majority of the materials from the iPhone is burned. This is a huge problem and a terrible way of getting rid of the materials, because it releases toxic vapors into the air such as chloride, mercury and other vapors.
The alternative to this smelting option is far worse. The mass amounts of E-Waste, including iPhones, are sold to poor countries such as West Africa, or Agbobloshie, and various places in Asia. From there, the people in the villages that receive the waste personally go through each and every device in order to recover any small trace of anything that can be of value, and then they discard the rest by burning them or throwing them into their rivers. This is having massively negative effects on these “e-graveyards” as the environment surrounding them are becoming highly toxic, which is creating issues for the people living about.
Thankfully, Apple has been hard at work at creating a solution for their E-Waste problem. At a keynote in March of 2016, Apple announced that they had created a 29-armed robot, which has been named Liam, is capable of taking apart 1.2 million iPhones each year, providing an environmentally friendly solution for all those old models sitting out there (Orchard). Apple also has a program that they call the “Apple renew program,” which allows for their customers to trade in their old devices. Depending on the age and the condition of the device, customers may even be able to get some money taken off of their new purchase or some money back for the devices. There are also many websites that offer this same type of trade program. In addition to the deconstructing robot, Apple also has been working to make their facilities go completely green. Apple would like to convert their facilities to run 100% on clean and renewable energy, and they are very close to their goal (in the 90% region).
In the past, the factories that produce Apple’s iPhones in China have been the subject of some serious ethical issues. The Chinese laborers who make iPhones are often working extremely long hours, in poor working conditions, and are also being severely under paid. There have been issues where Apple has been asked to raise workers’ wages, and there have also been investigations into the conditions in which the factory workers live. In 2010, a total of 18 people who worked in the Foxconn factory, who manufactures iPhones, jumped off of the top of the buildings to their deaths as a direct result of the working conditions and life styles that they endured. After this spree of suicides, the factory installed what they called “suicide nets” around the building so that no one else could jump to their death from the roof. In 2012 there was a mass protest in relation to the poor conditions in the factory, in which over 150 workers remained on the roof of the factory, all threatening to jump to their deaths in the conditions were not changed. This was considered a mass suicide protest. According to BBC news, an undercover reporter who was working in one of these factories in the outskirts of Shanghai, was forced to work 18 days in a row despite repeated requests for a day off (Richard Bilton). Another reporter whose longest shift was 16 hours, said: “Every time I got back to the dorms, I wouldn’t want to move. Even If I was hungry I wouldn’t want to get up to eat. I just wanted to life down and rest. I was unable to sleep at night because of the stress” (Richard Bilton). Apple has been the target of heavy criticism because of these ethical issues, and have claimed that they have always been investigating and trying to do what they can to keep the workers happy.
Fast forward to 2017, and now Apple is starting to explore the possibilities of producing iPhones in the United States. President Donald Trump has promised the nation that he is going to bring back manufacturing jobs into our country, and Apple is one of the biggest targets of this. Foxconn this year has confirmed that it was mulling $7 billion to create a flat-panel manufacturing facility in the United States (Kyle Wiggers). There has been speculation that Tim Cook, CEO of Apple, is planning to invest $1 billion into United States manufacturing. “We can be the ripple in the pond, Tim Cook says” (Jessica Guyunn, USA Today). This would create thousands of new jobs, and help put an end to the poor factory conditions in other countries, who are manufacturing our iPhones.
This issue of concern has taught me a lot about the relationship between the environment and society. We definitely live in a time when technology has taken off, and iPhones are one of the center pieces of that. We are developing the technology inside these phones so quickly, that we are able to create an updated version each year, resulting in millions of iPhones all of a sudden becoming old technology in way. I was very happy to learn from this research just how much Apple has been working on being environmentally and ethically responsible with the old iPhones that people no longer want. It is great that they have a trade in program that allows people to have a proper way to get rid of their old phone, without simply having to throw it in the trash or drive around looking for a proper recycling center to get rid of it. Apple has also impressed me with the robot that they created specifically to dismantle and recycle all of the old iPhones that come their way. I do believe that it is their responsibility to handle our old devices, simply because of the rate at which they are influencing people to upgrade to the new ones that they continue to come out with yearly.
I think that as a species living on this planet, we have been developing anything and everything that we can that helps make our lives easier. Unfortunately for a long period of time while these inventions were happening, we simply did not make these devices to be environmentally friendly. The first years of the iPhone were made with materials and components that are toxic to our environment and soil when they are not disposed or properly. And at the moment, these are the devices that there are so many of in the landfills and in the e-graveyards. These are the devices that are causing the current issues previously discussed. However, it is incredibly promising to know that all iPhones made today are much eco-friendlier, and that there is a proper system in place to properly recycle them without having to cause harm to our environment. I went into this research paper very concerned about the information I might find about all of the old discarded iPhones. There were definitely some troubling facts, but I do feel good about how the future might shape up to be, at least for the iPhones that are made from here on out.
The labor issues are also being addressed, and Apple is looking into moving its labor factories into the United States, where the conditions will be much better and pay will meet the standards of the United States. I think that Apple has been very ethically responsible in both the environment and the political categories, and my concern about the iPhone E-Waste has definitely gone down after writing this paper.
Bilton, Richard. “Apple 'failing to protect Chinese factory workers'.” BBC News, BBC, 18 Dec. 2014, www.bbc.com/news/business-30532463.
Moore, Malcolm. “'Mass suicide' protest at Apple manufacturer Foxconn factory.” The Telegraph, Telegraph Media Group, 11 Jan. 2012, www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/asia/china/9006988/Mass-suicide-protest-at-Apple-manufacturer-Foxconn-factory.html.
Kan, Michael. “Low wages, long hours persist at iPhone factory, says labor group.” CNET, 22 Oct. 2015, www.cnet.com/news/low-wages-and-long-hours-still-persist-at-iphone-factory-claims-labor-group/.
Holgate, Peter. “The model for recycling our old smartphones is actually causing massive pollution.” Recode, Recode, 8 Nov. 2017, www.recode.net/2017/11/8/16621512/where-does-my-smartphone-iphone-8-x-go-recycling-afterlife-toxic-waste-environment.
“An iPhone's Journey, From the Factory Floor to the Retail Store.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 29 Dec. 2016, www.nytimes.com/2016/12/29/technology/iphone-china-apple-stores.html.
“IWaste: The iPhone Environmental Impact.” Orchard | Blog, 9 June 2017, www.getorchard.com/blog/iphone-environmental-impact/.
“Ever Wondered What Happens to All Those Old iPhones? | Care2 Healthy Living.” Healthy Living, www.care2.com/greenliving/ever-wondered-what-happens-to-all-those-old-iphones.html.
Guynn, Jessica. “Apple to invest $1B in U.S. manufacturing fund; 'We can be the ripple in the pond,' Tim Cook says.” USA Today, Gannett Satellite Information Network, 4 May 2017, www.usatoday.com/story/tech/news/2017/05/03/apple-tim-cook-invest-us-manufacturing-fund-trump/101266056/.