Green your gizmos

Making our tech less toxic

My former colleague used to say that I could take better pictures with a potato than with my current phone. And okay, sure, it’s showing its age. It’s nearing three. In human years, a rambunctious toddler, but in phone years, a grandpa asleep in the recliner, mouth open. My phone wasn’t the newest when it came out, but there have been at least four models released since mine. Which, when you think about it, is pretty bananas. Imagine if you bought a $700 rake and two years later it only raked half as well and you had to buy a new, slightly better one. You’d think you’d been hosed. Because you were.

But okay, you say, it’s only money, and it’s a thing I use all the time. Plus Bell’s going to give me a new one practically for free.

But here’s something else to consider: 80% or more of the greenhouse gas emissions of a cellphone comes from just making it. Here’s a chart for the iPhone 8:

(By the way, Apple provides environmental report cards for all their recent products.)

Why so much pollution to make a wee thing? A lot has to do with mining rare metals to make our hand computers: there are sixty-two in the average phone. Computers use a lot of precious metals too, but curiously phones use up to ten times more.

Anything with a rechargeable lithium battery requires cobalt, currently mined in places like the Democratic Republic of the Congo by workers — including children as young as six — who inhale toxic dust linked to breathing problems and birth defects for their wages of $0.65 a day. Cobalt mining also pollutes local water sources. Even the most seemingly virtuous electric vehicle or solar battery involves a lot of mining, pollution, and often labour violations. Google says they use conflict-free sourcing and no child labour, and as of 2018 Apple committed to buy straight from cobalt mines to crack down on labour violations and Amnesty International praised its supply chain practices, though brutal mining conditions continue since market demand is so strong.

It’s heavy, I know. So here’s how to make our hardware a little lighter on the planet.

Make it last.

As much as my battery is strugs to func and I’d really like to take some portrait mode photos, I’m keeping the potato for as long as I can. If I keep it for three years instead of two, I’m getting 50% more out of the resources that went into my phone.

And though cases aren’t always the sexiest look, neither is a splintered phone screen. So save yourself time, money, and looking like a teenager by protecting the tech you have.

Get it repaired.

Good news: sometimes there’s an easy fix that can extend your phone’s life!

Bad news: phone manufacturers often strongarm customers into using only authorized retailers, where repairs and parts are more expensive — sometimes so expensive it’s cheaper to get a whole new device. (How convenient . . .) According to a 2019 OpenMedia poll, 1/3 of Canadians have found repairs prohibitively expensive, and 76% have tossed repairable devices. A 2018 CBC News investigation found that Apple was overcharging for repairs that could be done inexpensively by a third party. Manufacturers also create roadblocks like making parts or manuals unavailable or cancelling warranties if an unauthorized individual attempts to repair it.

If you think this is monopolistic nonsense, support Right to Repair legislation, which Europe will see for household appliances starting in 2021 and Massachusetts brought in for cars in 2012. When it comes to tech, there’s been less success: New York’s Right to Repair Act was defeated in 2017 (helped by $100,000 in lobbyist money, including $20,000 from Apple), and in 2019 Ontario MPP Michael Coteau’s private member’s bill was voted down. It would have been the first official Right to Repair law in North America. Though Apple and other tech giants continue to lobby against legislation, in August 2019, Apple agreed to provide parts and tools to select independent shops.

This issue doesn’t just affect techie city dwellers, either, restrictions on repair hit farmers hard. They can no longer repair, reset, or retrofit their own tractors and other farm machinery, often meaning work is on hold for days as they wait for an authorized repair person (which can be dire at harvest time), and a bill for thousands of dollars. In 2018, John Deere and other farmer equipment companies successfully defeated a California Right to Repair bill.

For now, if you’re being quoted an outrageous price by an official repair outlet and ready to pitch your device, consider another option:

  • Bring it to a third-party repair shop.

  • Try to fix it yourself using tutorials on iFixit, which has repair guides and some parts and tools available.

  • Bring it to a repair cafe or a Restart Party, and have someone try to repair it for free.

Buy used.

When it’s time to turn in the potato, I’ll be hitting up Toronto-based online biz Orchard for a refurbished phone. Remember, environmentally speaking, used is always better than new. It’s also cheaper and gives you more control over your plan, so you won’t have to sell your soul to the telecom tyrants.

Apple also sells most of their products refurbished, and they come with a one-year warranty. The last time I had a PC I still had a flip phone, but I’m sure you can also get them as good as new.

Send your phone to a new home.

Got old products kicking around that still have life in them? Trade them in with some manufacturers and get a credit or cash back. It also increases the likelihood your product will get repaired or properly recycled. (Apple has a robot named Daisy, an expert iPhone disassembler, which can apparently recover more materials than other recycling facilities.)

You can also use your phone for good, by donating it to the CNIB’s Phone It Forward program and help a visually impaired person. (Plus, you get a sweet tax credit!)

Don’t toss tech in the trash.

We’re making more electronic waste than ever: a UN report noted that globally we made 44.6 million metric tonnes — that’s 4,500 Eiffel Towers — of it in 2016, up 8% from 2014. Only 20% of that was documented as recycled.

Recycling electronics is hugely energy-intensive, but it’s still the safest way to dispose of something that really can’t have a second life. Our gizmos leak toxic chemicals into landfill that can leach into soil and waterways. And remember those toxic mining practices? If our tech isn’t recycled, there’s no way to lower demand, and toxic mining carries on and maybe even worsens. Those metals are also basically trashy treasure: the same UN report estimates the 2016 e-waste was worth 55 billion euros — more than the GDP of most countries in the world.

If your devices are completely dunzo, bring them to Staples, Best Buy, or, in Toronto, a Community Environment Day for free, safe recycling.


TL;DR

  • Manufacturing new tech has a high environmental and human cost. Keep yours as long as you can.

  • When your phone or computer is kaput, shop used first.

  • Donate or trade in tech that still has some life in it.

  • Dispose of old electronics properly in a dedicated recycling program.


Wins of the Week

“Our quest is only to be thoughtful, and to simplify our needs, step-by-step.”
— Barbara Kingsolver, Small Wonder

  • Tania is helping organize a church conference that has chosen to focus on sustainability responsibilities and practices!

  • Sarah Joy isn’t buying any new clothes for the year! (ICYMI: the fast fashion newsletter tells you why this is a baller move.)

  • My dad has given up plastic bags (produce and grocery size) at the store. Reusable bags or bust!

What are your green gains this week? Don’t be shy!

It’s a little harder to be green under COVID-19, with many retailers pausing reusables programs, but when they return, get back out there for your refills. We need to reaffirm reusables as something responsible and sanitary under normal conditions.

In the meantime, keep calm and wash your hands. Resilience and security come from strong relationships and healthy social support systems, not from hoarding toilet paper and baked beans in our tiny fortresses. Under COVID, like under climate change, borders and walls won’t save us — in fact, they might defeat us. The climate disruption is guaranteed to bring more crises: wildfires, floods, heat waves, conflict, and, yes, even disease outbreaks. Let’s focus on how we can make our communities, relationships, and our environment healthier and more resilient one day at a time. That’s a better insurance policy than all the toilet paper in the world.

I am, as always, forever grateful for your comments, questions, and shares, which are one way I find hope and resilience in this work and in this world.

xo JK