The Story of Cell Phone Stuff: A How-To, by Grazi Benedet

Annie Leonard, “The Story of Stuff” creator/internet sensation, recently came out with a new informational video called, “The Story of Electronics: Why Designed for the Dump Is Toxic for People and the Planet.”  You can see that video at Story Of Stuff. In it, she discusses how our electronics are essentially made to be broken, outdated and thrown away. She highlights the toxins that go into them, the process of disposing of them and at the end of the video talks about ways we can correct the issues (by encouraging the companies creating the junk take care of the junk!).

The back drop of electronic waste (e-waste) looks something like this: Companies make really cool, fragile gadgets that will soon be either outdated or broken. Unfortunately, most of these products end up in the garbage when the next purchase is made. Many of our electronics are hauled off to foreign countries like India, where safety measures are either too limited or too bureaucratic to do much good. Less than 20% of e-waste gets recycled at all. E-waste makes up only 2% of the total volume of America’s dumps but over 70% of the toxic waste. Now that we know the toxicity of our landscape, let me break down some of the nuances in the way that it relates to the most personal of our electronic gadgets: cell phones.

ReUse and Repair

Currently, only 10% of our cell phones are recycled. Because of a strong wave of enlightenment-by-education going around that number will hopefully grow in the coming years. The increased awareness is related to a rise in the number of phone repair shops. It is not easy money though, as parts often are too expensive to make a repair ‘worth it’. Why is this?

Have you ever noticed how many Apple iPhone repair shops exist compared to other companies? The reason is because Apple does not collaborate with multiple manufacturers to promote products. Instead, the iPhone operating system runs on a grand total of four phones (original, iPhone 3G, iPhone 3gs and iPhone 4). While this limits their ability to appeal to the masses, it makes it easy for repair shops to keep needed parts for products in stock and ready to be installed.

Compared to the Android OS, where four new phones seem to be released every month, the iPhone looks like an e-waste saint. While the iPhone 4 was dubbed the ‘fragile beauty’, it’s hard to deny that the repair options are far more plentiful. Think about it from a repair service perspective: An average repair shop is able to keep an inventory of, let’s say, $2000 in replacement parts and tools. Is it going to be easier for them to do this for the iPhone over Android powered phones. Some Motorola and HTC phones use the same parts from one to the next, but the majority of wholesalers (if you are lucky enough to find one that carries them) won’t label their parts as working for phone A, B, F and R.

The industry is adapting to the variety of phones and if you own one of the more popular models of Motorola and HTC phones, you may very well find a shop that might actually help you with repairs rather than directing you to your next purchase. Even if they do not have parts on hand they will most likely be able to order them on an as needed basis. This point is complicated by the speed of production of new phones, and so, new parts, but the trend is growing just the same.

The last issue to address, which is one that Annie Leonard also discusses in “The Story of Electronics,” is modularity. Substantively, this means the ease of repair if one part or another breaks down. A great example of this is with phone screen repair. Most smartphones have the screen and the LCD connected or glued, so when the screen cracks the LCD has to be replaced with it. With the iPhone 3G and 3Gs, they kept them separated, which means that if the screen cracks much of the time the LCD is still functional. This makes repairs about $50 to $65, compared to $130 to $155. With the iPhone 4, they unfortunately reverted back to them being glued together. This means the phones are more expensive to repair and a whole bunch of LCD’s need to be produced. Why? Because dust can get in between the glass and the LCD screen. It is this sort of unsustainable design choice that bars the possibility for an increase in non-toxic technology. If dust between the screen and LCD is a concern, a repair shop could clean it for $30, no extra parts needed. If your electronics device or appliance is no longer functioning and you don’t think there is a service close by that will replace it, it may be time to eCycle your e-waste. is an excellent website for locating a nearby recycler. They can take care of pretty much anything and if you have questions or concerns they are a great resource to turn to. The Basil Action Network (BAN) is the world’s only organization focused on confronting the global environmental injustice and economic inefficiency of toxic trade (toxic wastes, products and technologies) and its devastating impacts. If you know of an eWaste center and you are not sure if they properly dispose of their electronics (i.e. ship them to other countries without rigorous safety standards) than you should see if BAN has approved them. They have the E-Waste Stewardship Project, which is a program to ensure that exports of hazardous electronic waste to developing countries, exposed by BAN, are eliminated and replaced with producer responsibility and green design programs/legislation.

Grazi Benedet is the eCycling consultant of Repair Launch urging everyone to Save Responsibly. You can view her repair services guide at

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1 Comment
  1. I am very thankful to this topic because it really gives useful information.

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