Where do broken phones go?

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It’s time to rethink our mobile phone choices. Again.

This time, it’s not going to be about which brand or model to buy. It’s going to be about how to deal with the old phones that we have forgotten after we got a brand new one.

Where do old mobile phones go, really? And where are we headed in terms of dealing with the growing amount of e-waste largely driven by the fast-paced production of mobile technology?

Planned what?

There is a term used to refer to product design that doesn’t sit well with the idea of sustainability. It’s planned obsolescence.

Wikipedia defines this as a “policy of planning or designing a product with an artificially limited useful life, so it will become obsolete, that is, unfashionable or no longer functional after a certain period of time.”

In Dictionary.com, it’s “a method of stimulating consumer demand by designing products that wear out or become outmoded after limited use.”

According to The Economist, it’s “a business strategy in which the obsolescence (the process of becoming obsolete) of a product is planned and built into it from its conception. This is done so that in future the consumer feels a need to purchase new products and services that the manufacturer brings out as replacements for the old ones.”

However seemingly wordy these definitions may be, they all point to one thing: nothing we purchase lasts that long anymore. Companies release into the market products with relatively short shelf lives, and consumers are left with little control over these things that they purchase in the long run.

Products that are designed to fail in the long run include ink cartridges, lightbulbs, and even clothes! But let’s stick to our use of smartphones as a simple example.

With brands and manufacturers coming up with new models annually (wasn’t it just yesterday when Apple announced the iPhone 5?), it’s hard not to consider getting a new one—especially when the ones that we currently own are not as durable anymore compared to the feature phones we had during the early 2000s (remember Nokia 3310 and its successors?).

We often pay the price (often literally) for extravagant, computer-like features in smartphones. We exchange the convenience of having a smartphone with “super fast processor, super amazing camera, super lots of apps, and super everything” features for batteries that don’t last more than a day with 3G and WiFi turned on; the same batteries, even with rechargeable capacities become disposable when their charge cycles drop to unusable states. Worse, having them replaced may burn a hole in our pockets (especially if you use an iPhone that has a battery sealed and locked in the unit; only technicians can replace it for you for an exorbitant fee).

We also deal with broken displays. We put on and throw away phone casings like underwear. We use plastic accessories that come and go.

And before we know it, the current phone that we have is now obsolete, has limited tech support from the company that produced it, and is now in the dumps. Cough, cough. BlackBerry. Cough, cough.

iFrail

The business model behind our frail mobile phones persuades us to get brand new ones from time to time. Companies appear to deliberately limit the lifespan of devices to get consumers to get new ones every so often.

This fast smartphone cycle ripples and creates a problem with electronic waste (e-waste).

According to Greenpeace, extremely large volumes of e-waste in the world end up in some places in Africa, India, and China. But this doesn’t mean that our community is excluded in the list.

Aside from the piling waste, poisonous substances from these e-waste pose a threat to our health.

Causes International lists hazardous substances that come from computers and smartphones: lead (in the solder), mercury (in switches and relays), and brominated flame-retardants. These can build up in our bodies and in the environment.

Mounting invisibly

In an Interaksyon.com report, Lira Dalangin-Fernandez wrote that the government, the LGU responsible for e-waste (the Department of Environment and Natural Resources’ Environmental Management Bureau, DENR-EMB), and NGOs have no record of the volume of e-waste in the country. Worse, these e-waste are “generated locally or dumped here from other countries through trade agreements.”

In the same article, Richard Gutierrez, executive director of BAN Toxics said that “the difficulty is always getting the hard data on the volume of how much is getting into the Philippines. The best indicator is to get the data on electronics — for example, TVs possessed by households. In Cebu, Davao and Marikina, for example, it’s two TVs per household. But you can expect that in five years, they will change their units, and what makes the turnover fast is the presence of second-hand goods from Korea (and) Japan, thus most buyers gravitate to the cheapest product as long as it’s working.”

What we can do

But the good news is that there are some ways we can deal with the tech world’s growing concern on e-waste.

For example, Envirocycle Inc., a full service e-waste recycling company, has recycling program driven by the goal to “assure that no potentially polluting electronic equipment is deposited into landfill in the country.”

They believe that these sorts of waste should be re-used or recycled through fully licensed and accredited channels, and Envirocycle claims to be the “only full-service environmental processor of electronic waste in the Philippines being equipped to handle virtually all types of electronic waste streams.”

This firm is accredited by the DENR as a Treatment, Storage and Disposal (TSD) Facility capable of handling not just e-waste but a variety of other hazardous waste: cathode ray tubes (of TVs and computer screens), busted fluorescent lamps (BFLs), used lead-acid batteries (ULABs), ink toners and cartridges, used oil, contaminated containers, solder dross, solder paste, and more.

E-waste recycle is also alive in small communities in the country. The E-waste Project (Facebook.com/TheEwasteProject) is a trash collection drive of old, defective and obsolete electronic devices. The proceeds of this project will be used to build a computer laboratory of an educational institution.

Then there’s also IRI Philippines, Inc. (www.iri.com.ph), said to be the first company in the Philippines that specializes in solid waste recycling and reclamation services. According to their website, the company has been in service since 2001; it matches the waste disposal requirements of the country’s semiconductor and electronics industries. In 2004, IRI has become a fully-integrated waste recycling company.

Another e-waste recycling program is spearheaded by companies who deploy electronic devices into the market.

Globe Telecom has what the call a Project 1 Phone to “combat the dumping of e-waste and promote stronger social and environmental practices.”

“Globally, we dispose almost 50 million metric tons of e-waste every year; that’s more than 2 million truck containers,” Globe’s campaign video showed. In a press release, the telco said that by donating old, non-working, or damaged electronic devices (phones, tablets, and batteries) we will be able to minimize the environmental and health impacts of e-waste. Anyone can donate their phones in e-waste bins located in every Globe nationwide.

Globe partnered with TES-AMM, an e-waste recycler, to responsibly manage dead electronics. TES-AMM, with their knowledge on environment and waste management, will reuse and recover metals from these old devices. The money generated out of this partnership will proceed to constructing school buildings in Aklan.

Aside from actively engaging with community projects like this, we can also be in the know of the upcoming projects by smartphone manufacturers and voice our concerns on e-waste and sustainability.

Google’s modular smartphone, currently being developed as Project Ara, also poses a potential solution to smartphone sustainability. This kind of smartphone will allow users to customize their phone and minimizing e-waste. Google is closely working with Dave Hakkens, a designer in the Netherlands who is behind the Phonebloks community, an independent organization with the purpose of encouraging the development and production of products that produce less electronic waste.

And as for right now, here’s a tip: dispose of your e-waste responsibly and reconsider your smartphone choice and hold up your next purchase.

(Thoughts? Shoot them on Twitter @jesiramoun)

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