Ethical Consumption of Cell Phones Essay

Custom Student Mr. Teacher ENG 1001-04 27 September 2016

Ethical Consumption of Cell Phones

1. INTRODUCTION In just 30 years, mobile telephony has grown into a major global industry, with an estimated 5 billion users around the world, compared with a total world population of around 7 billion people. While new subscriber growth has slowed somewhat in recent years, product turnover remains high, with over 1 billion new mobile phones shipped in 2009 alone. This paper firstly examines the life cycle of a cell phone, describing its stages from the extraction of the materials to its disposal or re-usage possibilities. It also discussed the ethical issues that impact the environment and society. Lastly, two cell phone manufactures (Apple and Nokia) are being compared in terms of how they deal with environmental impacts.


Stage One: Extraction of Materials Mobile phones generally comprise approximately 40% metals and 40% plastics, with the remainder made up of glass, ceramic and other miscellaneous materials. The parts of a cell phone include the circuit board, the liquid crystal display (LCD) and the rechargeable battery. The circuit board, which controls all of the phone’s functions, consists of copper, gold, silver, lead, nickel, tin, coltan, and zinc. The LCD, which is a flat-panel display where all the information and images appear, is made of glass or plastic. Batteries power the cell phone and, depending on the type of battery, may contain nickel, cobalt, zinc, cadmium and copper. Many of these materials are so called “persistent toxins” that remain in the environment for a long period of time, even after disposal. Furthermore, an important life cycle consideration is the energy required to extract metals from their respective ores. From an energy perspective, precious metals gold and silver and exceed the impact of copper. In addition, the energy content of glass also has a significant energy footprint, due to the high melt temperatures that are required during manufacturing.

Stage Two: Materials Processing Raw materials that go into making cell phones must first be processed before manufacturers can use them. For example, to make the plastic casing, crude oil needs to be combined with natural gas and chemicals. The copper used to make the circuit board and batteries has to be mined from the ground, heated and treated with chemicals and electricity before it can be formed into wires and sheets. Stage Three: Manufacturing

The individual parts of a cell phone each go through a manufacturing process. The circuit board is shaped using plastics and fibreglass and then coated with gold plating. The circuits and wires of the circuit board are soldered, glued and coated. The LCD is made with liquid crystals layered between glass or plastic. These layers include two polarized panels, with a liquid crystal solution between them. Light is projected through the layer of liquid crystals and is colorized, which produces the visible image. Batteries have two electrodes (both made from a different metal) and each electrode is touched by a liquid material called electrolytes. When an outlet or another outside electrical source is applied, a chemical reaction between the electrodes and the electrolytes causes an electric current to flow and powers the battery. Stage Four: Packaging and Transportation

The transportation process and packaging of cell phones is seen as harmful to the environment. Transporting cell phones for distribution requires the use of fossil fuels for energy, which can contribute to global climate change. While packaging protects products from damage, identifies contents, and provides information, excessive or decorative packaging contributes to the waste that we produce. Packaging consumes valuable natural resources, such as paper (from trees), plastic (from crude oil in the earth), aluminium (from ore), or other materials, all of which use energy to produce and can result in waste. Some packaging, however, can be made from recycled materials. Stage Five: Useful Life

You can extend the use of your cell phone by taking good care of it as in protecting it from damage by storing it in a case, avoiding dropping it, and keeping it out of extreme heat and cold and away from water and other liquids. However, the materials that are used to make cell phones can potentially damage the environment and harm people. Therefore, it is important to reuse, recycle or properly dispose cell phones.

Reuse: Many organizations, including recyclers, charities, and electronics manufacturers, accept working cell phones and offer them to schools, community organizations, and individuals in need. Reuse gives people, who could not otherwise afford them, free or reduced cost access to new phones and this also extends the useful lifetime of a phone.

Recycle: Nowadays, many stores, manufacturers, and recycling centres accept cell phones for recycling. Some cell phones can be fixed and sold as refurbished phones, or parts can be used to fix phones. Some rechargeable batteries can also be recycled, as this way the recovered materials can be used to make new batteries and stainless steel products.

Disposal: However, about 40% of cell phones can’t be sold as refurbished cell phones. These cell phones are shredded as well as smelted at a copper refiner. Many metals actually go back to their natural state. This process helps replenish some natural resources and it is called above ground mining. Still, many cell phones are simply thrown in the trash and end up in landfills (buried in the ground) or incinerators (burned). Because cell phones contain metals, plastics, chemicals, and other potentially hazardous substances, they should always be recycled or properly disposed. Phones that are thrown away waste energy and result in the loss of valuable resources.

This figure shows the cell phone recycling rate from 2007 to 2010 in the United Stated. Even though sales were the highest in 2010, the recycling rate did not correspond to the sales.

3. ETHICAL ISSUES 1. Energy Conservation The quantity of mobile phone usage increases any environmental impact of this product. Life-cycle analysis conducted by the European Commission shows that energy consumption is the greatest impact, both during manufacture of components and during their usage. Nokia estimated that if 10% of worldwide subscribers would unplug their chargers once their phone is fully charged, the energy saved could to supply 60,000 European homes for one year. Issues like wastage of energy due to overcharging and or mobiles left unplugged even after being fully charged needs to be addressed more. 2. Exploitation & Illegal Trading

The material used in the manufacturing of the mobile phones is coltan, a heat resistant material found in the Republic of Congo. In the Coltan, mines there are children that have to work instead of going to school and many reputable companies buy this mineral. Companies have to resort to material provided by controversial circumstances. What is Coltan?

Coltan, short for columbite-tantalite is a metallic ore comprising niobium and tantalum. The niobium-dominant mineral in coltan is columbite, and the tantalum-dominant mineral is tantalite. Niobium, whose leading producer in Brazil, is mostly found in the mineral pyrochlore whereas tantalum is extracted from the ore, tantalite and is created by smelting and tin mining in some places. Tantalum mineral is mainly mined in Australia, Brazil, Canada, Democratic Republic of Congo, China, Ethiopia, Mozambique and other central African countries. Coltan is important for manufacturing cell phones because it is in the capacitors that control current flow in the cell phone’s circuit board. When refined, coltan becomes a heat resistant powder, metallic tantalum which has unique properties for storing electrical charge. Mining Coltan

In the Coltan is mined by hand in the Congo by groups of men digging basins in streams by scrapping off the surface mud. They then “slosh” the water around the crater, which causes the Coltan ore to settle at the bottom of the crater where it is retrieved by the miners. A team can “mine” one kilo of Coltan per day. Most of these miners are children which are subjected to extreme conditions. Therefore, awareness has to be brought to these terrible working conditions by which these child workers are affected.

Coltan financing war A recent report by the UN has claimed that all the parties involved in the local civil war have been involved in the mining and sale of Coltan. One report suggested that the neighbouring Rwandan army made US$250 million from selling Coltan in less than 18 months, despite there being no Coltan in Rwanda to mine. The military forces of Uganda and Burundi are also implicated in smuggling Coltan out of Congo for resale in Belgium. A report to the United Nations Security Council has called for a moratorium on purchase and import of resources from the Democratic Republic of Congo, due to the ongoing civil war that has dragged in the surrounding countries. 3. Toxics Waste disposal & Environmental Impact

Persistent Bio accumulative toxins Persistent Bio accumulative toxins (PBTs) PBTs are particularly dangerous because they do not degrade over long periods of time, and can easily spread and move between air, water, and soil, resulting in the accumulation of toxins far from the original point source of pollution. Because PBTs accumulate in fatty issue of humans and animals, the toxins are gradually concentrated and are of great risk. Cell phone batteries

Rechargeable batteries are rapidly changing as technological advances improve new power sources. Already 60% of rechargeable Batteries sold worldwide are used in cell phones. However, rechargeable currently have toxic constituents such as cadmium, as well as brominated flame-retardants. The total environmental impact from cell phone batteries depends on a batteries material composition as well as on the time cell phones are used before they are discarded. Therefore, many cell phone users replace their batteries at least once before retiring their phones Lead

Lead is a highly poisonous metal affecting almost every organ and system in the body. It has been widely used in electronics as the primary method of attaching components to the printed wiring boards. Lead is a toxin to both humans and the environment. It is a common contaminant and can impact entire ecosystems. In humans, it affects the central nervous system, immune and vascular systems, kidneys, and the endocrine system, with serious effects on the development of children’s brains. Lead is also a possible carcinogen. It accumulates in the environment and has very high chronic and acute effects on microorganisms, plants, and animals. 4. Society

In past few years, the boom in the usage of mobile phones has tremendously increased, a large percentage of which are children. With the advancement of technology with faster data rate and streaming videos, the youth has been given unlimited access to any contents on web. Restrictions should be established to prohibit children from accessing adult content. Also, mobile phones have been restricted to be used during driving as it has been one of the factors of road accidents.


How do these companies deal with environmental impacts? This part of the paper compared two companies in the cellular industry, Apple and Nokia, and how these firms deal with environmental impacts. Although Apple is not entirely a mobile devices producer, its only mobile phone, the iPhone, is very popular and widely sold. Nokia is a well known mobile devices producer, which was dominating the industry for a very long time. However, in past couple years they have faced tremendous difficulties catching up with the technological changes, and did not produce a “smart phone” in time. Despite their rapid losses in revenues, they still operate in this market, and one of their latest smart phones, the LUMIA 800, is very similar to the iPhone 4S. Both phones have similar hardware preferences and are comprised of similar materials. Now let’s take a look at which company is better off when it comes to sustainable business. Apple iPhone 4S

Apple generally says that their products are brominated flame retardant – free, PVC – free, mercury – free, and that the glass they use is arsenic – free. All of these factors conclude in a positive result for Apple. Also, the iPhone releases a minimum of CO2 -gases. In fact, it releases only 1.2g of CO2-gases per hour, whereas a light bulb produces 48.4g per hour. This performance is due to the LED screen, as LED produces the least CO2 of all light sources. Furthermore, Apple has reduced the size of their packages of iPhones by 42%, which not only rapidly reduces the amount of materials necessary, but they can also ship 80% more boxes in each airline shipping container. That saves one 747 flight for every 371,250 units they ship. If you count in the amounts of fuel that is saved and add every aspect of this change together, it is clear that Apple’s Environmental Management is doing incredibly well. Their whole portfolio regarding environment is a perfect marketing strategy.

They claim that all of their products are fully recyclable. This also includes the power conservation, which in this case is a Lithium-Ion battery. This battery is efficient and long lasting, which eliminated the necessity to replace the battery often. Despite this, there is no way the battery can be removed from the phone without unscrewing the body of the phone, for which you need ultra thin screw drivers. Therefore, nobody can actually recycle these batteries themselves, unless they return it to Apple or give their phones to a recycling company. Despite all of these positive factors, Apple still operates this business using very irrational sales policies. They replace their products with twice as strong hardware every year and adapt the software to the new hardware, which makes the old products very slow and ultimately unable to use. This forces the customers to always buy the newest models, which eventually produces a lot of waste. Nokia LUMIA 800

Although Nokia now has very strong environmental reporting, this whole process started only after the crisis the company went through. Despite this, the LUMIA 800 proves to be a very sustainable product. In Nokia’s reports, it is stated that the phone is BFR-free and PVC-free. The company also states that this phone produces 16kg of CO2 emissions per constant 3 years of usage. Equally divided this yields 0.6g per hour of use, however this is not very reliable because it depends on the way these emissions are measured. When it comes to packaging, Nokia still uses the big boxes. After almost 15 years, they still use the same size of the boxes loaded with papers which contribute to a large amount of material waste. All in all, both companies provide very detailed information about their business ethics, and both rank positively. Apple as well as Nokia lay a great emphasis on improving the environmental aspects of their products and processes in each phase of the product life cycle, from raw material acquisition till the end of the product’s useful life. Both companies state to have reduced their carbon footprint, while introducing new features and constantly improving their products. To conclude, it cannot be said which company performs better as each of them has its advantages and disadvantages.

Taking all the above mentioned points into consideration, this paper aims to highlight the ethical issues of mobile phones. When buying a cell phone, most consumers do not even think about what impacts their choice can have on the environment; the same applies to the disposal after the end of life. There are estimated 5 billion cell phone users which should be made more aware of the potential hazards of mobiles. They can cause environmental and health issues, causing CO2-emissions which increase the carbon footprint. Therefore, in conclusion, the choice which cell phone to buy should not only be based on cost and technical factors but also include environmental aspects.

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  • University/College: University of Chicago

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  • Date: 27 September 2016

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