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Smartphones and Electronic Waste

Smartphones are becoming a major contributor in electronic waste, with millions of tons generated every year.

Smartphones are becoming a major contributor in electronic waste, with millions of tons generated every year.

According to the data portal website Statista.com, more than 1.54 billion smartphones were sold in 2019. That reported figure means that smartphone sales in the whole world increased by more than 1,000 percent in the last 14 years, from back in 2007 when the iPhone first came out. But that doesn’t mean that more people only started buying cellphones as soon as smartphones started to exist – as there were already more than a billion mobile phones sold back in 2008, and they were mainly sold by the ancient brands Nokia and Motorola, as well as today’s mainstays in Samsung, Sony, and LG. In fact, Nokia sold 250 million units of the 1100 model which came out 2003. For comparison, Apple sold a combined 222 million units of iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus, which came out in 2014.

Thanks for taking the time to visit this article. This is the fifth of my reading series Cherry-Picked, a bunch of articles where I try to craft an interesting backstory behind a certain number I happen to stumble upon. You don’t need to read the first four articles of this series to get an idea of what this is all about, but if you’re eager and would like to check them out, here they are:

  1. Job Losses and the Death of Tenure – how there were 818,000 jobs that were lost in the United States during one of the worst months of the Great Recession and why that’s interesting.
  2. The Fiscal Quarter that was a Nightmare for the Philippines – the GDP of the Philippines shrunk by a monumental -16.9 percent in Q2 2020.
  3. Energy Labels and Consuming Electricity Responsibly – a total of 816 kilowatt-hours of electricity was consumed by the average Filipino in 2019.
  4. Water Use and the Lack of Infrastructure – the Philippines consumed 85.14 billion cubic meters of water in 2016, but problems in accessibility continue.

Let’s go back to the topic at hand – 1.54 billion smartphones.

My First Smartphone and its Successors

I always begin an article that’s part of the Cherry-Picked series by sharing my personal experience. I can’t say I’ve ever had a smartphone in the top-tier of quality and prestige – and I can’t really complain. Ever since my local-branded MyPhone was completely submerged underwater when I lost my footing at a rocky beach (the phone cost ~100 USD), I’ve had my postpaid plan provider decide for me. Or at least give me 3-4 options, as was limited by my monthly Telecom bill. The smartphones which have passed my hands and eventually into some junk-yard somewhere are as follows:

1. A white Huawei with broken power button

  • How I got it: Near my senior year in college, I took out a postpaid phone plan because I had some money from a side gig. This was my first smartphone.
  • How it met its demise: Stolen while out on a roundabout run. Who knows if the phone is still alive somewhere out there? Its power button was unsalvageable, though.

2. The un-waterproof MyPhone

  • How I got it: The first time I had a 13th month pay came in, I chose one of the better models of a local brand.
  • How it met its demise: I lost my footing while jumping over slippery rocks. May have been slightly intoxicated at the time (right against self-incrimination).

3. Some no-name with the size and shape of the first iPhone

  • How I got it: I actually got this in between phones 1 and 2. This was one of the cheapest phones I could find, and it did the job.
  • How it met its demise: Natural causes. Lasted longer than I thought a $50 phone ever could. It died an honorable death.

4. The Cloudfone mistake

  • How I got it: Confident about the relatively OK quality local Filipino brands offered, I spared 4,000 pesos to get a low-range Cloudfone.
  • How it met its demise: One fall into a concrete floor and its LCD broke. My local phone fixer (Phone-dyman) told me it was not worth replacing the LCD, as shipping plus the cost of replacement would almost equal buying a new one.

5. Lenovo Phab 2

  • How I got it: When Phone No. 2, the MyPhone died a terrible death, I decided to go back to postpaid plans. Gigantic phones were starting to become trendy again, so I chose the Lenovo Phab 2 which was the in-between of a smartphone and a tablet.
  • How it met its demise: Confident with its sturdy appearance, I kind of became negligent with its handling. I also didn’t get much sleep those days, as my work sometimes extended from 12 noon to 6 the following morning – so I guess that passes as a valid excuse. Its battery terminals broke, and my Phone-dyman never got back to me on shipping a replacement battery.

6. A Samsung S5 imitation phone

  • How I got it: Some co-worker offered to sell me a suspicious-looking Samsung, which was by-and-large passing as a Samsung S5. The S6 had just come out that year, and so the S5 wasn’t too far behind. After I bought it, I found out that the battery didn’t even last a single day, and everything was in Chinese. It also had a full memory despite only a few apps being installed.
  • How it met its demise: Not sure if it ever died, but I returned it 2 days after testing it out. And I got my money back, of course.

7. Rose Gold iPhone 6

  • How I got it: Company-sponsored phone for employees at my level. It was to cover communication costs since our managers were from a different region.
  • How it met its demise: Got swiped from my pocket after a long night of queuing at the bus station.

8. Black Huawei with an AI cam

  • How I got it: When the 2-year cycle of my postpaid plan was up, I chose a Huawei phone from the selections of my provider. To my dismay, the day after, Donald Trump decides to ban Huawei phones in the United States. Made me think it might be banned in other countries, including the Philippines.
  • How it met its demise: It’s still alive, FYI. But its screen is cracked – the first ever of all smartphones I owned that had a cracked screen. Call me negligent and wasteful, but I never had a cracked screen prior to it.

Is Electronic Waste a Serious Issue?

As you can see, even a non-afficionado like myself amassed a total of 8 smartphones since 2013, an average of 1 smartphone per year. I’ve been contributing to the billions of smartphones sold every year. And as you can also infer, I wasn’t the best at choosing which smartphone to buy – you could argue that 2 or 3 smartphones in 8 years should have been the case for me, had I chosen better quality models.

This brings me to another issue that has sprung up due to people’s insatiable appetite in buying consumer electronics – E-waste. To use a standard term, Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE). Just how much are smartphones contributing to WEEE? And is electronic waste a serious issue?

Smartphones contribute about 10 percent of global e-waste (weforum.org). And it was estimated that its total contribution was more than 50 million tons. That’s the other aspect of the 1.54 billion smartphones – the fact that people are replacing unserviceable, unsalvageable phones to buy new ones. And the thing is, phones don’t need to become unserviceable for you to replace them – as I shared with my personal smartphone history, not all of my phones really died before I decided to get a new one. It was because of their poor quality, reaching a state where using them would become an unbearable inconvenience on my part.

And unbearable inconvenience can be very fluid these days. With the new features that keep coming out through all the name brands, whose designers work daily to iterate and hope one day to create the perfect phone, people will keep buying phones because new ones will always come.

smartphones-and-electronic-waste

A Time When Smartphones won’t be called ‘Tech’ Anymore

Maybe this is just me – but I get mildly confused when tech reviewer call smartphones ‘tech.’ Cellphones have been around for a long while now, and smartphones for that matter have been around for almost two decades. Smartphones are now reaching the realm of cars – where the market is just going to be there for good, and having a car would no longer be something new.

I think the day when smartphones will no longer be referred to as ‘tech’ is approaching. Tech reviewers won’t have to call themselves that anymore, and instead will just be called consumer electronics ‘experts.’

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