Planned Obsolescence of Cell Phones is an Environmental Nightmare

October, 2017



E-waste is the common term for electronic products at the end of their “useful life.” Computers, televisions, VCRs, stereos, copiers, and fax machines are electronic products that can be reused, refurbished, or recycled. Let’s focus on our cell phones.
In 2012, 1.6 billion new cell phones were manufactured, and the average lifespan of a new cell phone in the U.S. is 9 – 18 months. Each cell phone contains precious metals, including gallium, selenium, gold, mercury, chromium, niobium, tungsten and molybdenum, which produce a cocktail of toxic chemicals when disposed.  Aside from negative environmental impacts of extraction of these metals, they are often not recycled. So where does everything end up? The dump. As your year-old cell phone sits in a pile amongst other cell phones, these metals seep back into the groundwater, causing contamination for wildlife—and us.

A sea of unwanted cell phones. Photo: Wikimedia CC.

A sea of unwanted cell phones.
Photo: Wikimedia CC.

Rather than designing durable, longer-lasting electronic devices that are conveniently refurbished or recycled, electronic manufacturers have promoted and appealed to an environmentally destructive part of the human psyche.  Our insatiable desire for the “best”, the “newest,” and the “fastest” with built-in obsolescence keeps us perpetually buy-buy-buying more, fueling industry profits at the planet’s expense. 

There are several ways to help mitigate this problem.

If it ain’t broke, don’t throw it away!
More often than not, consumers purchase new cell phones because they want an upgrade, not because their cell phone is broken. On Apple’s website, already there is information about the iPhone X, which can’t even be pre-ordered until October 27, 2017…for $999.00. Not to mention the iPhone 8; pre-orders began on September 22, 2017— which costs $799.00. The chain manufacturers and internet service providers that supply cell phones encourage and even incentivize the frequent purchase of new devices. Countless Americans will toss out their cell phones without consideration of the serious environmental impacts in their rush to buy the next newer, shinier thing, even though their current device works just fine.

If it is broke, fix it!
We need to equip our national and local economy with the proper infrastructure to repair and refurbish broken electronics. Planned obsolescence for the sake of profit cannot be sustained indefinitely. When we transition to a society that values repair and durability, not only will we increase market demand for specialized repair skills and businesses, we will also increase access to low-cost technology for communities that need it. Too often, whole electronics are thrown away when they could be fixed with a relatively inexpensive part replacement.

There are several repair services for cell phones on the Redwood Coast: iExperts in Arcata & Eureka, Cellairis in Eureka, and Advanced Cellular Repair in Fortuna. Support these local repair businesses and outlets for refurbishing and recycling electronics.

Information on how to fix many devices can also be found at

Subject categories: