Your Phone is Destroying the World

Our cultural obsession with the new has created a destructive cycle of consumption and destruction that affects so much more than just us.

     Agbogbloshie, Ghana — Image sourced from Wikipedia.

How many phones have you owned? Since 2000, when I got my first cellphone, I’ve owned — I think — more than ten. That amounts to at least one new phone every two years. Some have been company issue; some have been personal property. Either way, that’s a ridiculous number. It’s wasteful. It’s destructive.

But for the industry making the phones and the software and all the accessories that go with them, it’s fine. They’d actually prefer to double that number: a new phone every year. Just the idea of that makes me nervous.

But what if things were different?

What if your phone — the one you’re using right now — was your last phone? Take a good look at it and imagine using it for the rest of your life. Could it even last that long? Maybe the more provocative question is, could you?

The answer is no. On both counts. The company that made your phone is betting on your boredom, envy, or privilege-enabled curiosity kicking in pretty quickly, even before the phone itself gives out. And for those of you who would be perfectly happy buying one phone and using it for the foreseeable future, well, there’s just not a whole lot of it to foresee. They have made sure that your phone won’t last much longer than the successor they’re designing right now and hoping to sell you next month.

One way or another — whether your battery eventually degrades, given the 20% hit it takes every 500 charges, or the motherboard just can’t take another day of heat, or, let’s be honest, you shatter the screen on the bathroom floor — you’ll be buying a new one sometime over the next handful of years. Perhaps sooner.

What happens to a planet and its people when technological progress is measured in product cycles. And what happens when there’s no balance sheet to account for the other side of that — when every new product leaves billions of products and accessories and packaging behind.

Can we really call it progress when it creates so much waste?

If a shiny new device is one side of progress, the other is a vast field of smoldering heaps of discarded technology, sifted through by desperate, suffering people hoping to recover something to sell.

That may sound farfetched to you, let me assure you, it’s very real. One such place is Agbogbloshie, a scrapyard in Ghana. It’s considered one of the most toxic places on the planet. It’s on a very short list with places like Chernobyl.

People live there, spending their lives scavenging and breaking down electronic waste so they can sell the precious metals like copper and aluminum found in circuit boards and wires. What they can’t sell, they burn.

Is this reality OK with us?

Eight years ago, worldwide mobile phone production was around 500 million units. Six years ago, it was double that. Today, there are significantly more phones in use than there are living human beings. That’s a staggering number, and yet, not every living person has a phone. For the industry, that’s opportunity.

But a number that is truly terrifying is one that is, at the moment, unspecified. It’s the number of mobile phones that have ever existed. The ones, like my first cellphone, that aren’t in use anymore, and are still here — somewhere — tucked in a drawer, absorbed by soil, consumed by an animal, burned and evaporated into our atmosphere and then rained back down upon us.

What we do know that is in 2014, the world produced 42 million tons of electronic waste. Just in one year. That’s 115 times the mass of the Empire State Building; 7 times the weight of the Great Pyramid at Giza.

While electronic devices can be carefully broken down, and much of their material can be recycled, that’s not what usually happens. Most of them are buried, burned, or broken down by acid baths. And typically, a person is nearby when that’s happening. Their body is assaulted by toxic fumes and smoke.

The miles and miles of waste dumped at Agbogbloshie leak lead, mercury, arsenic, zinc and flame retardants into the surrounding environment, thoroughly poisoning the ecosystem.

We don’t need a years-long study to conclude what we already know — that no ones body should be made a toxins filter for scavenged e-waste; that no one should spend a life living in a burning wasteland just in the hopes of pulling enough copper out of a melted phone to buy them another day’s bread. When you stop to look at the ugly byproduct of decades of technological productivity creates, it’s hard not to imagine armies of its mutated chickens coming home to roost someday.

But when it comes to the cost of consumption, we don’t have the luxury of thinking of “one day” as if it’s sometime far off in the distant future. At the rate we’re going, there is no distant future.

Agbogbloshie may not be in my back yard, but it’s the literal back yard of millions of people who are just as entitled to a better way of life as anyone living on this planet. And meanwhile, the combined millions of tons of copper, iron, gold, silver, and aluminum that can be recovered from e-waste could be the catalyst of a much more functional, worldwide recycling system that safely employs many people.

But for now, recycling is a sham.

Thousands of miles away, in the opposite direction of Agbogbloshie, lies the truth of recycling. In the center of the Pacific Ocean, due West of our 21st century technological Mecca, floats a haphazard plastic mass. There are sheets, buckets, bottles, but also countless small bits of it, all stuck together by wood pulp and chemical sludge. This is what is known as the Great Pacific Garbage patch.

     The Great Pacific Garbage Patch — Image sourced from Reuters.

You may have heard of it before. But if you’re like me, you probably imagined something more like what you’d see at any local beach: a dense collection of those recognizable things you’d expect to see in a recycling bin, bobbing along in the water. Except in this case, just a whole lot more. For some reason I always imagine a bright red TIDE bottle floating by or one of those foam noodles you’d play with at the pool. But as it turns out, the Great Pacific Garbage patch is much more spread and diffuse than that — so much so that you can’t actually see it in satellite imagery. Nevertheless, it’s still a very big, very dense environmental mess.

To understand that, you have to get a little familiar with the numbers. This so-called “patch” is spread over hundreds of thousands of square miles. That alone is hard to imagine. But it’s also made up of tens of thousands of tons of plastic — an estimated 1.8 trillion individual pieces. Now here’s the interesting part: 92% of the garbage patch’s mass comes from objects larger than half a centimeter — so, something you can easily see. But 94% of the total number of objects in the patch are micro plastics — something less than 5 millimeters in length. At that size, any object is liable to find its way just about anywhere. Including inside another organism.

As a case in point, there are 1.5 million albatrosses living near the patch, and biologists estimate that 100% of them — each and every one — have plastic in their gastrointestinal tract. Their offspring have a 30% mortality rate, largely because they’re fed plastic by their parents.

     A Plastic-Riddled Albatross — Image sourced from The Guardian.

People who study and protect the Albatross find bits of plastic in their waste, strewn throughout their habitat, and entangled with their organs when they die.

Now, all that is at the visible level. Zoom in a bit and you’ll see that these micro plastics absorb organic pollutants, like DDT, which then create toxic conditions and disrupt hormonal balances within the bodies of the animals that unwittingly consume them. Those conditions spread through the food chain, all the way up to us, when we eat the fish that ate the jellyfish that ate the crab that ate the plankton.

What can we do about this? It might seem like recycling is the answer. The problem is that we’re actually not very good at recycling. Plastic, especially, is hard to recycle. To properly collect it, break it down, and reuse it costs a lot - way more than just making new plastic - which is the calculus of any company or country weighing their options when it comes to what to do with their waste. That’s why waste is so often sold from one country to another. But that’s not recycling. That’s just kicking the can, or, in this case, the TIDE bottle.

That’s why the Pacific Garbage Patch is growing. It’s grown by 10 times every decade since 1945. A recent study concluded that of the 9.1 billion tons of plastic produced since 1950, only around 20% of it is still in use. Of the 7-ish billion tons of plastic that is no longer in use, only 9% of it was recycled. 12% was burned. The remaining 5.5 billion tons of plastic is either in the ocean or buried somewhere, in a landfill like Agbogbloshie.

It might seem like the distance between your phone and the Pacific Garbage Patch is pretty long — like, literally thousands of miles. But it is not. Something you’ve touched and used and valued is floating out there. That’s a guarantee.

And as abstract as micro plastics are in comparison with mobile phones, micro plastics come from mobile phones!

We’re caught up in a consumption cycle that treats pocket-size computers like to-go containers, in that they’re both designed to be held for a little while and then spend eternity buried in a landfill, or floating in the ocean, or burning in Africa.

It’s as reckless and wantonly wasteful as it sounds. But according to the billion-dollar industries that sit atop that cycle, it’s perfectly normal. Progress, even. If by progress, they mean keeping the hamster wheel spinning, or that there is a thing that came after another thing, or, screw it, that we’re progressing toward the day when everyone lives on islands of plastic, then yay, progress! But boy does that leave us all with a sickening number of notches on our consumption headboard. Not to mention a sickening feeling within our bodies as their plastic content increases at the microscopic level.

     Agbogbloshie, Ghana — Image sourced from Wikipedia.

If I were reading this, I’d probably be rather angry by now. I’d have the logo of some company in my mind’s eye, and I’d be tossing mental-daggers at it. But it’s too easy to blame the corporations. For every fat-cat shareholder, there are millions of willing participants who buy. So we, too, must accept some culpability.

I’ve tried plenty of times to recall the full list of mobile phones that I’ve ever owned and am ashamed to admit that I actually can’t. Nor can I tell you where all of them are today. It’s only fair to assume that they’re buried in a landfill, or floating in the ocean, or burning in Africa. So if I’m angry, I have to be angry at myself.

Forget why they make them, or why they sell them. The more important why? is Why do we buy?

Let’s go deeper than that. Why do we desire things? And deeper still. Why do we take pleasure in anticipating desire?

Millions of dollars are spent solely on the hype engine. Not the advertising, or the packaging, or anything directly tied to the products we buy, but just the chatter around what the next thing might be and when it might come.

Our investment in the liminal spaces between products speaks volumes, and yet, I still ask, why is the next thing so hard to resist?

In an interview with Marc Maron on his WTF podcast, the film director Danny Boyle — the director of the Steve Jobs biopic — said something interesting about Steve Jobs:

“Despite all the amazing products he’s made, which are perfect, he is himself poorly made.”

That’s quite the epitaph. In juxtaposing Jobs’s humanity — his failings and frailty — with the colossal impact he has had on our culture, Boyle isn’t dismissing his achievement, or even judging it. Instead, I think, he’s cutting to the core of our question of motive.

Jobs, even as he approached death, continued to invest his time and withering energy into that very machine which fills our tabs and inboxes with anticipation and analysis, our faces with the cool glow of infinite information, and, yes, our landfills with glass, aluminum, and toxic elements. Jobs, whose last words were so reportedly intrepid — “Wow, wow, wow” — left, as any person, a complicated legacy which, depending upon how you look at it, balances creativity with destruction, endurance with entropy.

That is the very tension of embodiment. It’s the taught, exposed nerve, the root of all we do with our bodies and suffer with our minds. We yearn for endurance; for commitment and continuity; for things that last; relationships, object, and, of course, our very selves. Yet, our bodies resist with every fiber of their being. Not just by craving novelty — as our cells shrink the interval between dopamine hits, first when we taste the new, then when we anticipate it, and then when we anticipate the anticipation — but by refusing to last themselves. By dying. Death is the only anticipation to which our bodies will not become addicted.

We live in an upgrade culture but our bodies don’t upgrade. You get one and that’s it. A mind aware of its body’s destiny is a mind in need of release and vulnerable to seduction. So long as we can imagine something — anything — that comes next, we have hope of perseverance.

So why do we consume with such destructive ferocity? Would it be too ironic to conclude that it is simply because we want to live? Because we know of no other way to express that?

Perhaps our serial romances with technology — that endless cycle of upgrades that puts a new phone in our hands nearly every year and fills wishlists with countless desirables — is necessary to our being. Perhaps it’s just part of the zeitgeist: The 21st century expression of humanity’s travail; of minds that can conceive of eternity, crying out from bodies that cannot.

Written by Christopher Butler on March 12, 2021,   In Essays

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