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iPhone Impact on the Environment By Katie Byrne California State University San Marcos


Introduction Every two years, the developed world waits anxiously for the release of the biggest news of the year. People anticipate the press release, leak photos of the device, and race to share the news of this item when the information is released. This response would be in anticipation of the release of the newest edition of the iPhone. Apple has a cult following when it comes to the frenzy that is associated with their devices. People love iPhones, they love iPads and they love their apple computers. People are loyal no matter what the cost. The article titled “How the iPhone widens the United States traded deficit with the people’s republic of China”, “iPhones were introduced to the US market in 2007 to large fanfare, selling an estimated 3 million units in the US in 2007, 5.3 million in 2008, and 11.3 million in 2009. Globally, iPhone sales have been estimated at 3.7 million, 13.7 million, and 25.7 million in 2007, 2008, and 2009” (Xing & Detert). According to Forbes.com, apple projected to sell seventy to eighty million iPhones in its first year of releasing the iPhone six. And their projections are not simply optimistic. The consumers deliver, rushing to the release of the newest device. Everybody wants the next iPhone. And while there may be many benefits to trading in for the newest device, what people don’t account for is the impact this may have on our environment. While upgrading a phone may provide one with a new fashion statement, the newest piece of technology and reliability, it may also have disadvantages such as taking from the earths resources, causing disposal damages, and effecting the health of undeserving people.


Why upgrade? u

Upgrading to the newest iPhone isn’t just about having a newer piece of technology, but it is largely looked on as a fashion statement and a status symbol. Having the newest iPhone is the “trendy” thing to do. There is no better way to display to everyone that you are with the times than to have the newest iPhone in hand. People race to be the first ones to share on facebook what apple has announced about the newest iPhone. We live in a society that values information. When one has the information about the newest apple release, they are viewed as “on point” or “with the times”. The satisfaction that comes from the words “is that the iPhone 7” is enough to make someone drop five hundred dollars at a moments notice. A few years ago when the iPhone six was released, I was in this crowd of people. The idea of having a bigger screen and a “gold” iPhone appealed to me so significantly that I signed up for the preorder in order to have it the day it came out. For weeks, I rode my high horse while people envied my phone, asking me if it was the “new iPhone”. I got to answer all of the questions about it and hand it over to jealous hands to admire every little detail. I was so stoked, this had just the reaction I was hoping for. But much like everything else that is considered “trendy” it became a “norm”, the excitement of this eventually faded, and I became just another one in a million to own this phone.


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Upgrading a cell phone every two years does have some benefits that are not strictly image related. During today’s technological movement, technology advances at such a fast pace that two years can mean a world of difference in capabilities. The phone that was considered “high speed� two years ago may no longer accommodate the needs of the current demand. When a phone is outdated, it makes it impossible to get the tasks done in timely matter. While some of these capibiities may not be completely necessary, such as posting pictures quicker or streaming videos faster, a lot of demand is put on smart phones today on the job. One is expected to be able to connect at a specific standard of speed, and when the phone cannot do so, it is the job that suffers. Phones are also made to be able to sync up with the other technology, and when one piece of technology is upgraded, it may require that all syncable items are as well. The need for reliability is also one people take into account when deciding whether or not they should upgrade. Batteries wear out after some time, and the risk of having an important call fail may be too big of a risk. The newer phones almost always come with the promise of a stronger battery life, so one can get more work done with less recharge. Productivity is what moves our nations, and these phones promise to deliver. As long as you have the newest and best phone, the problems faced with them will be minimal.


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Lastly, cell phone companies offer financial incentive when releasing these phones. The retail price of a new iPhone is around seven hundred dollars, however with the signature that agrees to another two-year contract, most cell phone companies will give their customers this phone at a discounted rate of around two hundred dollars. This offers customers both an incentive to upgrade because they think they’re getting a better price, and it gives the cell phone company a guarantee to have their customers locked in for another two years. But as if this isn’t enough, sometimes even greater incentives are offered. When I upgraded my phone after the iPhone 6 came out, I was prepared to pay my two hundred dollars. However, when I stood in line at the apple store, they informed their customers that if they had an iPhone 5, they could sell it back to apple for $250. I believe their purpose in doing this was to remove the supply of used iPhones from the market, making it necessary to buy the newest iPhone rather than a preowned one. With incentives like these, people have no financial obstacles holding them back from going through with an upgrade.


Disadvantages of upgrading

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Though financially the iPhone may be free, the price of upgrading may come at a cost that no amount of money could buy. The earth can only afford so much giving and disposing of before it is too much to sustain. Unfortunately, these environmental impacts are largely overlooked in the developed world. People make the decisions based on finances and image, and largely neglect the idea that the environment suffers. These environmental impacts include mining products for new materials, disposing of old products, and the long term effects of doing this consistently every two years.

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When most people are asked where the materials for the iPhone come from, this question is not one that can be answered. iPhone materials are mined from the ground, usually with the rarest minerals possible for the phone. According to cnet.com, “Minerals such as neodymium are used in magnets that make speakers vibrate to create sound. Europium is a phosphor that creates a bright red on an iPhone screen. Cerium gets put into a solvent that workers use to polish devices as they move along the assembly line” (Greene, 2012.). Another mineral includes thorium, which is recorded to cause lung and pancreatic cancer when exposed to in high levels. In order to gather these materials, they must be mined out of a lake, which is described as “instantly assault[ing] your senses. Stand on the black crust for just seconds and your eyes water and a powerful, acrid stench fills your lungs.” (Greene, 2012). Large machines are placed into these lakes, and harm is reported to be done to the plants, animals, and surrounding villagers. These items are then placed on a conveyer belt and sorted through, a system which in it’s own is sure to have a massive effect on the environment. The pebbles are then moved along, combined with water and crushed in a tube containing steel balls. That is then mixed with a chemical that pulls the minerals to the top. About ninety-two percent of this mix has no value, but contains toxic waste that is thrown back into a lake. The remaining eight percent is used in order to make the iPhone screens, speakers, and other pieces. This is claimed to be the “environmentally friendly” version of extracting minerals, but placing toxic waste back into lakes is far from environmentally friendly.


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The article “Addressing the Dual Challenges of Meeting Demand for Minerals and Sustainable Development” discusses the ways in which a more environmentally friendly way of mining is taking place, however it reveals little information on how they plan to do so. Doing so also comes at the cost of people’s health, as these jobs are usually outsourced to countries that use child slavery. This health doesn’t only cause physical stress, but mental stress as they race to meet their quotas. So while the procedure has less weight on the environment, it is hurting a human life.

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After these minerals are mined, and the purchases are made, people replace their sim card from one iPhone and must dispose of their old one. There are many ways in which one could go about this. Often, people will give or sell their old phone to someone via craigslist or personal relationships. In this case, someone who needed a phone gains a phone at the fraction of a retail price. This is the most environmentally friendly option. Afraid of risking the loss of a purchase, Apple, too, will offer to buy back the previous phone from their customers when upgrading. Another service Apple offers is “Apple Recycling” (apple.com). The slogan for this program is “renew” and it gives customers a place to bring their old devices and leave them for free. Apple then takes these items and either refurbishes and resells them, or recycles them “responsibly”. They have designed a “robot” that takes apart up to 1.2 million iPhones a year, and properly dispose of each part. Another common thing for people to do with their phones after upgrading is to just leave them around the house. I know I have a drawer of old cell phones, and every time I upgrade, I place the newest reject among the others. This works for me currently, but at some point the fate of these devices will have to be decided, either by myself or those who have outlived me. The hope would be that they would arrive in a recycle facility. Lastly, the most dreadful option of disposing of old phones would be that one would simply throw them away. When this scenario happens, phones are dumped into landfills, and when they are smashed, toxins and chemicals are released into the ground.


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The idea of recycling the phones responsibly sounds appealing, but it comes with a social cost. According to the New York Times, when these phones are recycled, they end up in impoverished places such as Ghana, India and China. It is there that women and children are put to work deconstructing these devices in order to make use of the gold, silver and copper. When these items are successfully extracted, they are sold for only a few dollars, which is incomparable to the price they pay on their health. When batteries are destroyed to recover cadmium, the body comes in contact with a toxic chemical. These chemicals can have irreversible growth and developmental effects on children. So even while one is doing their environmental responsibility by recycling, it is worth questioning whether they are upholding their responsibility to humanity (Acaroglu, 2013).

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Other efforts to maintain an “ecofriendly� business include energy and materials. Apple claims to be dedicated to reducing their carbon footprint. One example is their usage of clean energy, powering their facilities in China and Singapore with solar energy. Apple’s data centers around the world run completely on clean energy. The paper that they use in their packaging is all either recycled or sustained, in order to pull through with their commitment to rainforests. Efforts to reduce water usage are also in play (Apple.com).


Conclusion u

While apple seems to be taking a step in the right direction on awareness to their impact on the environment, I believe it is important to be informed and make these choices individually. Ecofriendly materials, recycled materials and clean energy are all wonderful ways to start, but when the output is as high as apple tends to have, it is hardly sustainable. No matter how aware one company tends to be about their output, producing millions of iPhones a year is sure to take its toll on the environment. At some point, the earth is not going to be able to take the amount of resources being mined from it. Dumping toxic waste in lakes is sure to have long term effects. Devices have to have a place to go when they are done being used, and the choices are at the cost of the environment or at the cost of another human’s health and development. iPhones are great and the developed world has benefited tremendously from both them and other smart phones. But it is time that people be aware of the impacts they are having on the environment, and accept that upgrading a device every two years is not what is in the best interest for neither our earth and our people. It is because of this information that I believe that upgrading phones every two years ago has detrimental consequences that cannot be ignored, and that it is time that something changes.


Works Cited u

Acaroglu, L. (2013, May 12). Recycling Electronic Waste. Retrieved November 30, 2016, from http://www.nytimes.com/2013/05/13/opinion/recycli ng-electronic-waste.html

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Bøås, M., & Hatløy, A. (2008). Child Labour in West Africa: Different Work – Different Vulnerabilities. International Migration, 46(3), 3-25.

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Environment. (n.d.). Retrieved November 30, 2016, from http://www.apple.com/environment/

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Grayson, R. L. (2011). Addressing the dual challenges of meeting demand for minerals and sustainable development. Minerals, 1(1), 1-2. doi:http://dx.doi.org.ezproxy.csusm.edu/10.3390/min 1010001

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Greene September 26, 2012 12:00 AM PDT @iamjaygreene, J. (2012). Digging for rare earths: The mines where iPhones are born. Retrieved November 30, 2016, from https://www.cnet.com/news/diggingfor-rare-earths-the-mines-where-iphones-are-born/

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Horwitz, J. (2015). Opinion: These are the 10 reasons to upgrade your old phone to iPhone 6S. Retrieved November 30, 2016, from https://9to5mac.com/2015/08/24/opinion-10reasons-to-upgrade-old-phone-to-iphone-6s/

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Jones, C. (2014, July 24). By The Numbers: How Many iPhone 6's Is Apple Planning To Sell. Retrieved November 30, 2016, from http://www.forbes.com/sites/chuckjones/2014/07/24 /by-the-numbers-how-many-iphone-6s-is-appleplanning-to-sell/


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Leather, A. (2013, October 28). Why You Should Upgrade Your iPhone. Retrieved November 30, 2016, from http://www.forbes.com/sites/antonyleather/2013/10 /28/why-you-should-upgrade-your-iphone/

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Sheesley, J. (2008, July 24). Destroying the planet one iPhone at a time - TechRepublic. Retrieved November 30, 2016, from http://www.techrepublic.com/blog/decisioncentral/destroying-the-planet-one-iphone-at-a-time/

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Vanden Ende, J. (2012, September 20). Apple's new products raise environmental concerns. Retrieved November 30, 2016, from http://www.calvin.edu/chimes/2012/09/19/applesnew-products-raise-environmental-concerns/

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Weisbaum, H. (2012, December 06). Why you should buy a new smartphone every two years. Retrieved November 30, 2016, from http://www.nbcnews.com/technology/gadgetbox/why -you-should-buy-new-smartphone-every-two-years1C7455618

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Xing, Y., & Detert, N. (2011). How the iPhone widens the united states trade deficit with the people's republic of china. Aussenwirtschaft, 66(3), 339350,352. Retrieved from http://ezproxy.csusm.edu/login?url=http://search.pro quest.com.ezproxy.csusm.edu/docview/920284829?acc ountid=10363

iPhone Impact on the Environment