How does one weigh the pros and cons of such a complex thing as the mobile phone? There are consequences, both positive and negative, that are a result of China’s rapid growth. In only a few decades, China has transformed from one of the world’s poorest nations to the world’s second largest economy. But rapid development comes with long-term environmental, health and social costs. Mobile phones are emblematic of this trend, with many complex and paradoxical outcomes of its own. Phones have opened up China, both to itself and to the rest of the world, but production and disposal of the devices is proving to have a significant impact on our planet and its inhabitants.
An amazing amount of people have a cell phone, with current statistics of cell phone subscriptions totaling over 6.8 billion worldwide (Fernholz 2017), which is nearly as many as the number of people on earth. In the scope of 10 years, phones have gone from novelties to arguably the most central objects in our lives. It has has become an essential part of daily life, providing the best possible level of communication across the globe. Phones connect people to their loved ones, facilitate businesses and job-seekers, give the people a voice, and encourage the exploration of information.In China, the cell phone is a crucial tool to the millions of migrant workers who make them and many of the other products we consume, “The mobile phone was the first big purchase of most migrants. Without a phone, it was virtually impossible to keep up with friends or find a new job….
In a universe of perpetual motion, the mobile phone was magnetic north, the thing that fixed a person in place” (Chang 95).In addition, rare earth metals are increasingly becoming a critical strategic resource. From an economic standpoint, this can be seen as a positive for China as they currently hold claim to over 90 percent of the world’s production the hunt for ever-increasing amounts of raw materials, putting them in a position of power. As Deng Xiaoping said in 1992, “The Middle East has oil and China has rare earth,” noting the importance of REMs (Brennan).But, do the pros outweigh the cons? Mobile phones have allowed globalized communication and increased accessibility to information and people, but these luxuries we seem to view as something that we are entitled to, have a heavy impact on our world.Every month hundreds of millions of smartphones are churned out from factories across the developing word. The massive demand for smart devices is fed by a mind bogglingly large industry that employs millions of people. It’s no secret that this workforce is living and working in conditions that would appall some of the people at the other end of the chain.
The human costs of the latest high-tech toys and the poor conditions in Chinese factories were highlighted when several workers attempted suicide at Apple’s biggest supplier, Foxconn (Duhigg, Charles, and David Barboza). Mining for rare earth metals pollutes the globe, and harms local communities. Raw materials used to make smartphones are extracted using unregulated mining practices that take no safety measures and use child labor, many of these laborers die due to the appalling working conditions. In the Congo people are risking their lives in mines to get minerals so that users can constantly get newer and thinner smartphones.On top of the energy and cost associated with extracting the materials that go into a cell phone, the disposal of cellphones often leaves a toxic imprint on the environment.
Cell phones pose a serious burden on the environment, gobbling up power and precious materials before heading to landfill. In the developing countries where they are repurposed or dismantled, they can end up in the rivers and soil, where they help contribute to cancer, damage to the nervous system and to brain development in children. Technology development has brought beneficial changes in the functions of smartphones but has the potential to impact the environment due to the high generation of waste smartphones. “The release of new smartphone models to the market can significantly contribute to e-waste streams and has the potential to generate environmental impacts” (Mejame).Predominantly, consumers are oblivious ?to the social and environmental costs of having the world in their pockets. More than 60 percent of young people between 18 and 35 years old owns a smartphone globally.
In countries such as Germany or the United States, the figures reach 90 percent. This increasing rate is based on an unsustainable throwaway culture. Almost 80 percent of the sales correspond to consumers replacing their phones, even though most phones are still in working order (“Mobile Fact Sheet”).In conclusion, I believe that the mobile phone itself is a positive tool but the industry is negative. With their short-lived devices and unnecessarily fast product cycles, the manufacturers are causing massive environmental damage and catastrophic working conditions (Tobien). When you consider all of the materials and energy required to make these devices, their short lifespans, and the low rate of recycling, it’s clear we can’t continue this way. We need devices that last longer and ultimately, we need companies to embrace a new, circular production model.
Before you buy a new phone, spend some time learning about the tremendous environmental and human impact of your smartphone, it might make you reconsider how much you really care that you can unlock your phone with your face. In the face of this, you should really think about whether you need a contract that gives you a new mobile phone every year.