By ELIYA AHMAD, age 12
Illustrations by IVETTE SALOM
The new iPhone came out in late September, and already you can’t wait to get one. Suddenly, your current phone seems old and useless, its capabilities vastly limited compared to the new phone’s promises. Sound familiar? While people are caught up in the whirlwind of new products, few actually stop to think about the life cycle of the cell phone: What goes into making a cell phone? How was it made and who made it? And what will happen to it once you throw it in the trash? The time we spend with our phones is just a portion of their total life cycle.
First, let’s look at what a cell phone is made of. Materials like glass, stainless steel and plastic are used for the outside of the phone, but for the electronic circuits inside, cell phones require rare minerals that have to be mined from the earth. According to a New York Times investigative report, more than 90 percent of these minerals are mined from China, mostly from the Mongolian city of Baotou. The process produces large amounts of toxic waste that is often dumped into waterways. A man from Baotou told a reporter from the Daily Mail, “Anything we planted just withered, then our animals started to sicken and die.” Not only that, but investigative reports have shown that many cell phone companies buy minerals from places like the Congo, where military groups sell them and use the profit to fund wars. Such minerals are called “conflict materials.”
Next let’s look at the way cell phones are made. Cell phone companies manufacture products as cheaply as possible while still selling at high prices, to extract as large a profit as possible. In order to do that, they move production of phones to factories in countries with lower wages and labor standards. Allegations have been leveled at Apple, Samsung and other large companies that they treat their workers poorly. The employees’ living conditions are crowded, and they are forced to work long shifts, up to 15 hours a day. According to a January 2012 report in the New York Times, “[Apple] employees work excessive overtime, in some cases seven days a week, and live in crowded dorms.”
What happens when you’re ready to get rid of a cell phone? Many cell phones include lead, mercury and other toxic substances that can harm the environment if they are thrown in the garbage instead of being disposed of properly. Moreover, the majority of the electronics are shipped off to landfills in China, where workers without proper protective equipment often handle the materials.
The ideal method of disposing cell phones is to reuse or recycle them. There are many companies that will take your used or broken phone and disassemble it to recycle the materials for other purposes, or (if it is still in good condition) give it to people in need. The New York State Wireless Recycling Act states that wireless phone service providers must accept phones for recycling.
So next time you are tempted to throw out Old Faithful and replace it with the latest gadget, take a moment to remember all the time and resources that went into your phone and all the work that will be required to dispose of it correctly.