Count the cost of Apple's September sell



You've probably heard about the 'human cost' of producing iPhones. The suicide rates at the factories in China where they're produced. The 'conflict minerals' (minerals for which the supply or purchase contributes to conflicts in developing countries) that Apple and other tech companies have used.

iPhoneAnd then there's what happens after consumption. Once upon a time a phone, like a decent computer or TV, lasted you five or more years. Multinational companies looking to up the ante have made that a thing of the past now, and if you're caught with a five year old phone you better have a good explanation.

Apple has been in hot water for years about the ethics of not only the manufacture of their devices but the way they trap people into using exclusively their products. Yet iPhone fans gleefully fork out more money every September when the next version is ceremoniously revealed.

It's a formidable fad, with Apple selling a reported 74.5 million iPhones during the first quarter of 2015. Some estimates put the total number of iPhones bought worldwide at around a billion.

Consumers line up or wait on hold for hours to make sure they get the right type and colour — and be the first to have it. All that to get that coveted 'new phone feeling', as one of Telstra's latest phone plans puts it.

Every year this circus happens. It's become so normalised, most of us hardly blink an eye. How many people ask themselves whether the upgrades in the technology are worth getting a new phone every year? More importantly, how many people question the real-world costs that their purchase entails?

Several years ago senior scientist and authority on waste management at the Natural Resources Defence Council, Allen Hershkowitz, told the US 60 Minutes about the toxic chemicals contained in the e-waste that we produce at ever-increasing rates.

'Lead, cadmium, mercury, chromium, polyvinyl chlorides. All of these materials have known toxicological effects that range from brain damage to kidney disease to mutations, cancers,' he said. 'The problem with e-waste is that it is the fastest-growing component of the municipal waste stream worldwide. We throw out about 130,000 computers every day in the United States.'


"Greenpeace states that manufacturers need to stop using hazardous materials in production. They claim that safer alternatives already exist. In order for the market to respond to this call, more of us need to add our voices."


He also notes that 100 million mobile phones are thrown out each year — and that's just in the US. According to Greenpeace, the amount of electronic products discarded globally has skyrocked in recent years with between 20-50 million metric tonnes generated annually.

This is important, and not just for the countries where this toxic e-waste is dumped. In his book The Vulnerable Planet, John Bellamy Foster outlines four key laws of ecology: Everything is connected to everything else; Everything must go somewhere; Nature knows best; and, Nothing comes from nothing.

His extrapolation of 'Nature knows best' strikes at the heart of the issue: 'During five billion years of evolution, living things developed an array of substances and reactions that together constitute the living biosphere. The modern petrochemical industry, however, suddenly created thousands of new substances that did not exist in nature.

'Based on the same basic patterns of carbon chemistry as natural compounds, these new substances enter readily into existing biochemical processes. But they do so in ways that are frequently destructive to life, leading to mutations, cancer, and many different forms of death and disease.'

Dumping of e-waste, then, is not a localised issue. It affects us all.

It hardly seems worth it, when you consider the actual benefits consumers receive from the annual upgrade of their iPhone. Changes have included such so-called improvements as easier copy and paste, changed maps interface, changed 'home' button, and a higher pixel camera, and such new features as 'find my iPhone' (hardly essential, especially for those who diligently safeguard their overpriced device), voice control and 'Siri' (which, let's be honest, is more of an amusement than a useful feature), video chat capabilities (already available through software like Skype), and so on.

So what can be done? Greenpeace states on their website that manufacturers need to stop using hazardous materials in production. They claim that safer alternatives already exist. In order for the market to respond to this call, more of us need to add our voices.

Going a step further, Greenpeace say taxpayers should not bear the cost of recycling goods: 'Manufacturers should take full life cycle responsibility for their products and, once they reach the end of their useful life, take their goods back for re-use, safe recycling or disposal.' They have also produced a Guide to Green Electronics, which ranks companies on a range of criteria around both production and the life cycle of their products.

I'm not immune to all of this — I'm writing this on an Apple Macbook (though I bought it second-hand, for the lower guilt rating, as well as the health of my bank balance). However I did give away my old iPad and don't intend to buy another. I hope to keep all my current devices in use for many more years.

In the world we live in, we need phones. But we also need to be aware of the whole picture. The companies who profit the most need to take responsibility for the ethical and environmental fall-out. And as consumers we need to think twice about where our products came from, and where they'll end up.


Megan GrahamMegan Graham is a Melbourne based writer.

Topic tags: Megan Graham, iPhone, e-waste



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Existing comments

Well said Megan. I don't use Apple products due to their ethical footprint. I know other companies are guilty too but I think Apple is the worst. I also keep my phone, pass them on to someone else or donate them through Planet Ark.
Tony Williams | 20 September 2016

The stats cited here are staggering. But consumerist culture is resistant to being 'guilted' into change. I'm reminded of the Truth anti-smoking campaign in Florida in the 1990s which downplayed the 'smoking is bad for you' mantra and instead explained to teens that they were being manipulated by the tobacco industry. Marketing is key these days in effecting cultural change. Let's face it, consumers are being cleverly and expensively duped into believing they need more and more 'stuff'.
Anne Marie George | 20 September 2016

It is interesting to note the use of the CE logo on electronic equipment which indicates compliance to set standards by the Europen Commission, but there are exemptions and other factors that make it difficult for the consumer to know exactly how compliant! See the reference above to RoHS for more information. My other concern is how well Australian import regulations police products coming into this country. The import of Chinese building materials containing asbestos is a case in point. What chance is there to know the compliance of the electronics we import?
Peter Russell | 22 September 2016

Sorry reference to RoHS below. Sixty years ago, I remember, there was some pride in producing products that lasted. And many of these items were manufactured here in Australia. Then the market discovered 'planned obsolescence' was a money spinner. Companies that manufactured stuff that lasted could not compete as the flashy 'use by date' goods were cheaper to make. No thought that they would cost more in the longer term. I am still using a computer [ ] which is 14 years old and boots faster than my new Macbook. Interestingly production ceased after the UK introduced RoHS regulations [ ] that restricted the use of hazardous substances in manufacture. As the company was too small and did not have the capital nor the market power to redesign and comply it ceased production. It cost more than a PC when I purchased it but has repaid me many times over since and all OS upgrades have been free, the latest was 2015. I may need to be careful when it eventually wears out and I have to recycle it.!
Peter Russell | 22 September 2016

Apple is typical of many multinational companies that have earned the wrath of ordinary citizens worldwide. Apple was recently ordered by EU antitrust regulators to pay 13 billion euros ($A19.15 billion) in taxes to the Irish government. This follows China ordering it to pay 452 million Yuan (US$71) in taxes in 2013; Italy fining it $347 million for tax irregularities on profits made between 2008 and 2013; and The Australian Financial Review showing that Apple sold $27 billion worth of products in Australia but paid only $193 million to the ATO, just 0.7 per cent of its turnover. I’m happy that my 10-year-old Nokia still works.
Ross Howard | 22 September 2016


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