The environmental pitfalls at the end of an iPhone's life

Recycling or throwing out any piece of consumer electronics has an environmental cost. Apple is among the most progressive companies dealing with the problem. But is it enough?

Jay Greene Former Staff Writer
Jay Greene, a CNET senior writer, works from Seattle and focuses on investigations and analysis. He's a former Seattle bureau chief for BusinessWeek and author of the book "Design Is How It Works: How the Smartest Companies Turn Products into Icons" (Penguin/Portfolio).
Jay Greene
9 min read
A buyer of used mobile phones sits in front of the SEG Electronics Market in Shenzhen. Jay Greene/CNET

SHENZHEN, Guangdong province, China -- A young man, wearing a short-sleeve, white, button-down shirt, is looking at my 32-gigabyte iPhone 4S.

The man, sitting at a small stand in front of the massive SEG Electronics Market here, surfs to the settings page on the device, looks at the model number to determine where the phone came from. He sees it's a locked device. He notes there aren't any scratches or dings, and that it seems to work just fine. It should. I bought it last October, when the 4S first went on sale in the United States.

He offers me 2,300 renminbi, about $362.

"Xie xie," I say. Thank you. I move on.

I'm not really interested in selling my iPhone. I'm trying to learn what happens to iPhones when consumers get rid of them. In China, where Apple has sold more than 20 million iPhones in the last year, according to estimates by Sanford C. Bernstein & Co. analyst A.M. (Toni) Sacconaghi, Jr., consumers often come to stands like this one when it's time to move onto the next device. Where the device goes from there is a bit of a mystery.

The one thing that seems clear is that at the end of most mobile phones' lives in China, their components often wind up in a dumping site, a place such as Guiyu. That's a village that's become synonymous among environmentalists with toxic waste. In an investigative piece in 2008, 60 Minutes referred to Guiyu as the "Chernobyl of electronic waste." (CNET, like 60 Minutes, is owned by CBS.)

From rocks to recycling: The life of an iPhone

Yesterday: We looked at the human toll of creating iPhones, and the activists pushing to improve working conditions.

When spent circuit boards find their way to Guiyu, villagers heat them over coal fires to recover lead. The ash from the burning of coal gets dumped into the city's streams and canals, turning them black and poisoning the wells and groundwater. It's one reason why Guiyu reportedly has the highest level of cancer-causing dioxins in the world, elevated rates of miscarriages, and children with extremely high levels of lead poisoning.

One of the saddest ironies of the life cycle of consumer electronics is that many of the computer terminals, monitors, and mobile phones built in the factories of south China end their lives in heaps of contaminated dumps a few hundred miles away.

Yesterday, I wrote about the human toll of creating an iPhone, and the battle among activists to improve working conditions for the hundreds of thousands of Chinese who assemble the devices. Some 2,000 workers at a plant Taiyuan, China, run by contract manufacturer Foxconn, rioted two days ago. That was preceded by suicides and explosions at different plants run by contract manufacturers for Apple and other major consumer-electronics brands.

There's an environmental cost to iPhones as well. The iPhone, like all smartphones, has hazardous chemicals inside that need to be disposed of properly. Electronic waste has soiled parts of China as well as other developing countries for years, so much so that international laws have attempted to regulate the movement of broken gadgets, labeling them as toxic waste. But the popularity of the iPhone has upped the ante, selling so well here that environmentalists worry a tidal wave of used and discarded devices is only a few years away.

Where iPhones go to die
Watch this: Where iPhones go to die

To its credit, Apple has taken significant steps to reduce toxic materials in all of its products, including the iPhone. In an environmental report on the iPhone 5 posted to its Web site, for example, Apple noted that the device does not contain brominated fire retardants or polyvinyl chloride, two of the most hazardous components of electronic devices as they become electronic waste. Some studies suggest that those chemicals can cause developmental defects as well as liver damage.

Apple also has taken steps to prevent the parts from iPhones from winding up in spots such as Guiyu. The company says that all the e-waste it collects is processed in the region in which it was received. No electronic waste sent to Apple in the United States, for example, gets shipped overseas for recycling or disposal. And in China, Apple encourages consumers to send spent devices to Li Tong Group, which promises to recycle in an "environmentally friendly way."

Plenty of consumers, including me, sent old iPhones to Apple after getting new ones. For my old iPhone 3G, Apple rewarded me with a $25 gift card to its store, which I put toward an iPod Touch for my son. Consumers can also responsibly get rid of old electronics through recyclers certified by the e-Stewards Initiative. That organization was set up by the Basel Action Network, a Seattle environmental group that identifies companies across the United States that safely process e-waste.

Apple can't control where every used iPhone goes when it no longer works, and there's little doubt that plenty of iPhones don't go through those responsible channels. In the United States, some are sold to companies that refurbish and resell them in developing nations, where older iPhones still have some value. That sounds all well and good. In the hierarchy of environmental virtue, reuse is preferable to recycling. It extends the life of a product.

See also: Can a California mine change the way minerals are dug up for iPhones?

But there's a drawback to reuse when it comes to consumer electronics. Most developing nations don't have modern methods for recycling the glass, chips, wires, and plastics that make up today's products. Instead, when those gadgets die, they move through an informal recycling chain that often winds up doing more damage to the environment than good.

"I'm a heretic to say don't reuse it, but it goes right to the developing world where recycling isn't done well," said Jim Puckett, executive director of the Basel Action Network. "When you don't have that infrastructure, you better take care of it right away in a country where you can take care of it."

Of course, the iPhone is wildly popular the world over. And that's certainly true of China, where there's still plenty of poverty, along with millions of people who are moving into the middle class and even vast wealth. Money is flowing into modern cities such as Shanghai, and conspicuous consumption is rampant. Porsche Cayennes zip along the streets next to Land Rovers. Luxury brands such as Prada and Montblanc have opened plush boutiques there. McKinsey estimates that China will account for about 20 percent of global luxury sales in 2015.

For many Chinese with disposable income, an iPhone is more than just a communications device. It's a status symbol. That's one reason why Apple has three stores in Shanghai and another two in Beijing. Chinese consumers packed the Nanjing Road store in Shanghai when I visited, a place that looks just like the big windowed, iPod-white locations around the globe. Right down to the shoppers, packed around tables where they can get their hands on an iPhone.

The Apple store on Shanghai's well-traveled Nanjing Road. Jay Greene/CNET

So what will happen to the iPhones Chinese consumers buy when they no longer work? Let's go back to the young man sitting at the stand outside the SEG Electronics Market here. His job is to buy mobile phones like my iPhone 4S. My phone is relatively new and working, which increased its value. I talked with another buyer outside the main electronics market in Guangzhou, some 90 miles north of Shenzhen. He said he'd pay about 600 renminbi, about $95, for an iPhone 4S with a broken screen. If the motherboard is trashed, you'll be lucky to get 200 renminbi, about $31.

Those buyers work on behalf of consolidators. They fix iPhones and resell them inside those markets. A vendor inside the Shenzhen market was selling a used iPhone 4S for 3,800 renminbi, almost $600. Those phones are peddled alongside new iPhones sold by authorized resellers, as well as gray-market iPhones smuggled in from Hong Kong, where taxes are lower.

The phone buyers sitting outside the markets also pay for used phones that don't work. They collect dozens, even hundreds, of spent phones and sell them to larger buyers, who strip the phones of their working parts.

The trail of an iPhone's demise (pictures)

See all photos

A visit to a chop shop
So I went hunting for one of those electronics chop shops to see what they're really like. I found one, not much more than 40 feet deep and 25 feet wide, in Dashan village on the outskirts of Guangzhou. One sweltering Friday afternoon in June, about a dozen workers, mostly women, were ripping apart spent computers, separating the plastic, metals, and wires.

To a Western eye, it was almost Dickensian. It was the beginning of the monsoon season, and inside the shop it had to be 100 degrees. A fan blowing in the back of the garage did little to help. The workers sat on the floor on makeshift seats of overturned buckets or busted CRT computer monitors. Some used screwdrivers to snap apart plastic bits, sorting dark pieces from light ones. Others sifted through piles of components separating out motherboards, wiring, and other pieces.

Workers at an electronics recycling operation in Guangzhou, China, separate plastic, metals, and wires as they pull apart computers. Jay Greene/CNET

There were no mobile phones there that day, though workers told my interpreter that a batch of phones, stripped and separated, just left. The man who seemed to run the operation wouldn't give his name, and wouldn't say specifically where the various parts were headed. But he was proud of the work he was doing.

"We will disassemble everything and recycle," he said. "We will make new products with it. We won't waste anything."

I took plenty of pictures and showed them to Basel Action Network's Puckett when I returned to the United States. Is this kind of recycling good for the environment? I wondered. Puckett reiterated what he had told me before my trip to China.

"That type of recycling is worse than doing nothing," Puckett said. "It would be better to just put them in lined landfill."

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Mark Hobbs/CNET

Puckett, who has visited the region many times, suspects that many of the plastics will wind up in villages near Guangzhou where they will be melted in what he called "primitive" conditions, potentially releasing toxins in the air. Those plastics will be used for shoe soles, benches, and tables.

The metals will likely get melted in a clay oven, again with no meaningful environmental protection. Those makeshift smelters will create bullion of copper and aluminum for resale. The wires and the circuit boards? They're likely headed to Guiyu, Puckett said.

So I met with Du Huanzheng, a professor at Jiaxing University who has spent years studying Guiyu. Du jokes that the people in Guiyu see him so often, they refer to him as "Professor Junk." He's been working with villagers there to help them change their recycling methods and said he's making progress in Guiyu. But the obstacles are immense.

Du Huanzheng, a professor at Jiaxing University. Jay Greene/CNET

"It's very difficult to solve all the problems," Du said. "What people care most about is making money."

More than risking their health and life? Du said the families that operate the recycling sites in Guiyu are beginning to understand the health risks. But without recycling, many of those families wouldn't have enough money to feed themselves. They are simply making the choice to potentially suffer later in order to live now.

"In some places in China, people are so poor," Du said. "Money is more important to them."

Du's schedule was busy, and the only time we could connect during my China trip was at 9:30 p.m. at my hotel in Shanghai, a meeting we scheduled only hours earlier. He'd driven the 60 miles from Jiaxing and arrived at the hotel with an assistant, whose English is conversational. But the assistant struggled to translate our conversation, and the translator I hired had gone home for the evening.

Then, a moment of inspiration struck. I asked Du's assistant to use his phone to call my translator, put him on speaker in order to facilitate our conversation. He made the call and the conversation went on without a hitch. Yep, it was an iPhone.

I pointed to the device and asked if iPhone components are making their way to Guiyu. Not yet, Du said. Most of the iPhones in China arrived after Apple launched the product in the country in October 2009. Du assumes that most of those devices are still in use. But they are a ticking time bomb, more than 20 million strong.

"All of them," Du said, "will become e-waste and end up in Guiyu."

See also: Riots, suicides, and other issues in Foxconn's iPhone factories