Think Before You Upgrade

Smart phones are amazing devices that have the ability to increase productivity, social connectivity, and find you the nearest Chipotle, with a few taps on a screen. The seemingly limitless capabilities of smart phones have captivated users, and continual upgrades in performance have left consumers craving the latest models. This fascination with smart phones has caused the average American to keep their phone for less than one year before they choose to replace it and upgrade to the newest model of phone. [1] Yet with the frequent disposal of these phones there has been a lot more electronic waste which poses serious environmental and health problems that are often unseen.

The United States has gained a reputation as being particularly wasteful and irresponsible. With the frequent turnover in cell phones and other electronic devices, there has been a marked increase in electronic waste in the past years, which is expected to continue into the future. A study conducted in 2013 projected a 33% increase in electronic waste by 2017.[2]  Much of the e-waste that is being created is not being disposed of responsibly. Of all of the cell phones disposed of in 2011, 140 million of them ended up in a landfill, which equates to a cell phone being placed into a landfill every four seconds. [3] Once a cell phone is added to a landfill it proceeds to leach its toxic materials, including lead and mercury, into the ground which ultimately contaminates the soil and the ground water underneath. This seriously affects the quality of the drinking water in surrounding areas.

Much of e-waste finds its way to developing countries, which do not always have the resources to dispose of the waste responsibly. Developing countries normally have lower wages and lenient regulations, which makes waste disposal more cost-effective.[4] Developing countries accept the e-waste because there are many valuable parts and materials in electronic devices that can be salvaged including aluminum, copper, gold, and silver. Yet with lenient regulations it is common for young children to be employed in the recycling process, which exposes them to the hazardous materials.[5] After the e-waste has been checked by hand it is common for the devices to be burned in order to destroy the unusable material like plastic, this process leaves behind the gold and other desirable components. Yet the burning of these devices releases toxic and hazardous fumes, which people can easily inhale while sifting through the ashes.

Steps must be taken in order to address the problems posed by electronic waste. There is a treaty, the Basel Convention, which aims to increase responsible recycling and disposal of hazardous waste (including electronic waste). This is done by limiting trans boundary movements of hazardous waste unless both parties (countries) consent, and the receiving party has the capability to adequately process the waste.[6] This also helps prevent developing countries from having hazardous waste dumped in the country without their knowledge. Yet the United States has refused to ratify the treaty and become a participating party, thereby declining to uphold high environmental standards.

However, governmental policy is only one piece to solving the problems posed by e-waste. As a culture we need to become more conscious and responsible consumers by purchasing fewer goods, and ensuring that the products that we do buy get disposed of in an environmentally friendly fashion. This is going to take a concerted effort and a willingness to sacrifice convenience and low cost for ultimate sustainability. Though we are part of the problem, we can also be part of the solution. Next time, think before you upgrade.

(Copyright Christopher Cameron 2015)


[1] Jones, Elizabeth, “Cell Phones and the Environment” February 2012.

[2] Tweed, Katharine, “Global E-Waste Will Jump 33 Percent in the Next 5 Years” December 17, 2013.

[3] Ibid

[4] Bradley, Laura, “E-Waste in Developing Countries Endanger Environment, Locals” US News and World Report. August 1, 2014.

[5] Ibid

[6] Basel Convention “Overview” UNEP, last modified 2011

Basel Convention “Overview” UNEP, last modified 2011,

Bradley, Laura, “E-Waste in Developing Countries Endanger Environment, Locals” US News and World Report. August 1, 2014.

Jones, Elizabeth, “Cell Phones and the Environment” Last Modified February 2012.

Rucker, JD, “The Environmental Impact of Cell Phones”

Tweed, Katharine, “Global E-Waste Will Jump 33 Percent in the Next 5 Years” December 17, 2013.