Posted on August 5th, 2014

Outside the Box – E-Waste & Our Cellular World

I’m old enough to remember the time before cell phones. I remember when you had to actually coordinate with people where to meet and when, and you had to stick to your plans. I remember when people used to look where they were going when they were walking. I remember the time when every stupid thing I did wasn’t caught on video.

Ah, the glory days… we are, and have been for quite some time, a cellular and mobile world (pun intended). We are heavily dependent on our electronic gadgets. For many of us, much of our life is contained in that 3×5 index card looking thing. And with the recent ruling by the Supreme Court that law enforcement agents need a warrant to access the data contained in our phones, it gives further credit to the value of the phone as both a personal and professional necessity.

But what also comes along with these super handy, and sometimes awesome devices, is their inevitable ability to become outdated – and often very quickly. Much as with laptops, mp3 players and tablets, it seems like the next best thing comes out right after you buy your new toy. So what do many of us do? Clearly we buy the next best thing as soon as money allows. And herein lies the problem: what do we do with our old gear? Some of us stockpile them in an old shoebox making for a great time capsule submission that would chronicle our fast-paced technology development (as well as our materialistic culture and inability to be happy with simple things), while others of us recycle and still others discard.

GE1_SugarGroveStation_WV_7_9_2010_50cmcolor_ENHANCEDThe Sugar Grove Station in West Virginia is operated by the NSA and has the charge of intercepting all international communications entering the eastern United States. Oh yea, Big Brother is watching you… 50-cm color image captured on July 9, 2010 by WorldView-2 and comes courtesy of DigitalGlobe. Photo enhanced by Apollo Mapping.

You may say, “so what if I throw out my old phone?” Well, you just might be creating further problems for our environment, and maybe indirectly for yourself. Since no one wants to have their intimate secrets and nudie pictures to be commandeered through some seemingly well-intentioned phone recycling scam, many people choose to go the route of the garbage can with their outdated talk-boxes. So let’s break it down, what is so bad about pitching an old phone? Well here are the stats: More than 80% of electronic devices are discarded in landfills, and they have the potential to release harmful toxins into the air and soil. While e-waste represents only 2% of our trash in landfills, it makes up 70% of our toxic waste. Cell phones contain high percentages of precious metals like gold and silver. As a country, we throw away $60 million in gold and silver a year! The average American replaces their phone every 22 months; and in 2010 alone, there were 150 million phones discarded.

So we don’t want that stuff in our ground, do we (we want the gold in our banks!)? No, of course not. So what do we try to do with it? Export it to Third World countries so they get the negative side effects that come with the disposal of heavily toxic waste. The United States is the only industrialized country to not ratify the Basel Convention, an international treaty that makes it illegal to traffic in toxic waste. But we’re a consumptive society that wants the next great thing, and were also very heavily NIMBY. So what to do? I don’t have an answer, in case you were expecting one.

But cell phones cause other problems too. People who talk on them loudly in public venues are annoying and rude. People get distracted and use them when driving, and this has the potential to be the cause of severe accidents. And still others find the radio waves to be harmful to their quality of life and health. Some have gone as far as to live in shielded cages designed to protect them from electromagnetic radiation. Man, that would be a tough life. So what can someone who is more than just annoyed by our cellular culture do? Move to Green Bank, West Virginia, part of the U.S. Radio Quiet Zone. No radio transmitters are allowed within 10 miles of the facility. No cell phones, no Wi-Fi allowed. Can you hear me now? No? Good.

Justin Harmon
Staff Writer

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