Column Road Comment

The truth about technology

By Karis Pearson

The lifecycle of our tech is costing lives.

Walking out of your local Apple store, fresh from an upgrade, you may have a number of things preoccupying your mind, at least one of which is likely to be the sleek new device you’ve got burning a shiny hole in your bag, waiting to assist you with all your online needs. This is the way tech companies like it and it seems to keep most of us happy too. But, have you ever spared a thought for the 7-year old boy whose life is put at risk every time he is forced down a cobalt mine in the Democratic Republic of Congo, tasked with extracting the minerals vital to the manufacturing of that very smartphone devices we enjoy?

The DRC is a country saturated with blood, with conflict minerals like Coltan and Cobalt at the centre of funding warlords and armed groups, including government forces. Coltan is needed for its tantalum, which is extracted and used to make tantalum capacitors, an important component in modern electronics. Similarly, cobalt is a key component of batteries and is hence found in most mobile devices. These minerals, so crucial to technology manufacturing, are a natural resource extracted in a conflict zone sold to perpetuate the fighting.

Although they fuel conflict and send children into collapsable mining territories, the big technology companies would not sustain their production model without them, and in big tech, profits are more important than peace. This harsh reality is illustrated in Blood in the Mobile, a 2010 documentary where filmmaker Frank Piasecki Poulsen directly relates the civil war in the DRC with smartphone production and purchasing.

While this phase of mobile phone production is devastating and guilty of various human rights abuses, it is still just one phase of many damaging phrases. Phase two, the production process, see’s smartphone manufacturers carefully plan the lifespan of products around growing company profit. This is a process familiar to many by now, known as planned obsolescence. Planned obsolescence is a key contributor to global e-waste and involves products being built with obsolescence in mind. The more frequently our technologies fail us, the more often we have to replace them, simultaneously disposing of the old ones as e-waste in the process. Reducing waste, both in forms of energy and raw materials, is important for protecting the environment, but still plenty of smartphone producers design products unsustainably, with parts being heavily glued together and poorly designed for repair. Many of the guiltiest companies are in fact household names, with Huawei, Microsoft, Samsung, Google, LG and Apple all scoring poorly on repair site iFixit.

Now, while all this planned obsolescence is bad news, what isn’t is the upgrade downturn trend seen in recent years from UK smartphone users. Customers in the UK increasingly keep their phones for longer, of the view that innovations in technology have slowed and newer models of their phone will not have anything new to offer them (often very true), so they may as well wait until the old one breaks. This is a smart choice for the savvy consumer, but not one the smartphone company wants to make easy for us. Nowadays, upgrades are incentivised by intentionally developing apps which are compatible with the latest model of the device and the subsidising of these devices with contracts, allowing consumers to receive new models for free, or at a discount rate, roughly every 2 years. Eventually, all these old models will end up polluting the environment as e-waste.

A survey taken in Brussels found that people tend to replace their phone at varying rates, differing from every 1 and a half years to every three, but companies are still upgrading like there’s no tomorrow. It has become common practice for Apple to drop a new iPhone every 12 months, a rate which is just not appealing to a lot of customers anymore. Despite this lack of responsibility towards both consumers and the environment from the big smartphone companies, consumers across Europe are increasingly committed to finding long-lasting products. Seventy-seven percent of consumers in the EU agreeing they would rather fix broken products rather than buy new ones, while ninety-two percent of EU consumers want to be better informed on how long what they buy will last them. Figures like these indicate that it is not consumers who are the driving forward the speed of technological replacement rates.

Entrepreneurs from such countries as Finland, Germany and the Netherlands have been searching for solutions to the planned obsolescence model for a few years now. One solution has been found in the establishment of Fairphone, a smartphone company from the Netherlands which manufactures smartphones which are entirely repairable and can be taken apart and fixed easily by the phone owner themselves. This saves a cost to both the consumer and the environment, as plenty of smartphones which are considered ‘repairable’ must still be sent off to the manufacturer, for a substantial fee, to get them fixed. Apple are infamous for their use of the pentalobe screw, a 5-point screw designed to be tamper-resistant, meaning phone owners cannot attempt to fix their phones themselves but must instead pay Apple for the privilege.

Now, the scale of the e-waste problem is vast, with only 20% of the 50 million tonnes of e-waste generated annually being formally recycled. After tracking toxic hazardous electronic waste to various developing countries, the UK was found to be Europe’s worst offender in illegal exportations of e-waste. In fact, much electronic waste ends up in developing nations, with countries like India and Nigeria bearing the brunt as an e-waste dumpsite for Europe, the US and Asia.

The environmental, not to mention humanitarian disasters which occur globally as a result of smartphone production and purchasing, are significant and more legislation is needed to stop the epidemic from growing. Technology manufactures need to show a greater level of transparency in how they source the conflict minerals, as refusing to publish details continues to push the disastrous humanitarian consequences under the rug. We as consumers can only make an impact so far, but by refusing to upgrade unnecessarily or even by purchasing a more sustainable and repairable device, such as a Fairphone we can reduce our individual contributions to hazardous global e-waste and help to build a safer, more sustainable future for the planet.

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