The Afterlife of Cellphones

A growing international trade in discarded mobile phones is helping the world’s poor. But will it poison the earth?Americans threw out just shy of three million tons of household electronics in 2006. This so-called e-waste is the fastest-growing part of the municipal waste stream and, depending on your outlook, either an enormous problem or a bonanza. E-waste generally contains substances that, though safely sequestered during each product’s use, can become hazardous if not handled properly when disposed. Those products also hold bits of precious metals like silver, copper, platinum and gold.The Belgian company Umicore is in the business of reclaiming those materials. It extracts 17 metals from our unwanted televisions, computers and cellphones and from more ominous-sounding industrial byproducts like drosses and anode slimes. Umicore harvests silver from spent photo-developing solutions collected at American big-box stores and sells it to Italian jewelers. The company describes its work as “aboveground mining.”The article concludes:
“The mobile phone occupies a kind of glossy, scratch-free world,” he says. Whereas a pair of jeans gains character over time, a phone does no such thing. “As soon you purchase it, you can only watch it migrating further away from what it is you want — a glossy, scratch-free object.” You might leave the plastic film over the display for a few days, just so you can take it off later and “give yourself a second honeymoon with the phone,” he says. But ultimately everything that first attracted you to it only deteriorates. You start looking at it differently. “It’s made of some kind of sparkle-finished polymer and it’s got some decent curves on it, but so what? The intimacy comes more from the fact that, within that hand-held piece of plastic, exists your whole world” — your friends’ phone numbers, your digital pictures, your music — and that stuff can be easily transferred to a new one. So you “fall out of love” with the phone, Chapman says.Even the most idealistic visions of how e-waste should be recycled and reused take for granted that consumers and businesses will never reconsider why we are buying and discarding so many of those products, so quickly, in the first place. If the rush of castoffs isn’t likely to stop, we need to clear a proper path for it, considering all the inevitable compromises and costs along the way and delivering those products to as consequenceless a place as possible.There is no heaven for cellphones. Wherever they go, it seems that something, somewhere, to some extent always ends up being damaged or depleted. The only heaven I came across was what Chapman described. It is an image in our heads — not of a place where we can send a used phone but one where we imagine each device when it’s brand-new, right before we first get our hands on it. That illusion of perfection, no matter how many times we see it spoiled, will always lure us into buying the next new phone and sending the last one careering on its way.

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