We need to upgrade our planet, not our phones



Somewhere along the way, my parenting skills went awry. My daughter, aged 14 going on 20, has an unwelcome competitive streak. She taunts me that she has five times as many followers on Twitter as I do (@tcollins298 if you want to help me out); and she crows that her iPhone is a more sophisticated model than mine.

I preach about the dangers of materialism, but she is more interested in having a conversation with Siri, the iPhone’s built-in “intelligent personal assistant” – a modern day version of the Oracle of Delphi that answers anything you ask of it.

In our household, my wife is even further behind in the tech stakes. Apple has stopped upgrading the operating system for her model. The phone is perfectly serviceable as a communications device, but apps – fine-tuned to the capabilities of the latest IOS no longer work properly.

Soon she will be forced to ‘upgrade’ because the way things are today, a phone is not just a phone. It has become the centre of our lives.

When my daughter lost her iPhone recently, there was a week of warfare over my refusal to upgrade her to an iPhone 6. Bad daddy. I thought a straight replacement was being generous.

The upgrade war hasn’t gone away. It’s just that hostilities have been suspended until October. She has an app that allows her to count down to major life events: the cat’s birthday, the next One Direction concert, the date when her current mobile phone contract comes to an end and she can campaign for an upgrade even though her phone will be perfectly serviceable.

I imagine that across Northern Ireland, similar domestic dramas are being played out.

In Europe every year more than 100 million phones are discarded. It is estimated that in the UK, there are some 85 million phones lying unused in drawers. In 2013, the United Nations warned about the impact of electronic waste. At that point, we were generating 7 kilos of waste a year for every person on our tiny planet. That’s around 15.5lbs to people of my generation. The figure is expected to grow to 20lbs by 2017.

Waste on this scale might be understandable if a product has reached the end of its useful life. But the issue here is not about life-cycle at all. It’s about built-in obsolescence – either by design, deliberate neglect (stopping updates), or by rendering a phone ‘unfashionable’ because it has been superseded by a sexier new model.

The life expectancy of a mobile phone is now less than two years: about the same as a pet hamster. There is something seriously wrong when the so-called “upgrade cycle” is less than the useful life of the product.

“What’s all the fuss about?” I hear some saying, “it’s only a phone. Most of it is plastic. It’s no big deal.” But our tech contains metals such a lead, gold, silver, and copper.

Researchers at the University of Surrey suggest that the 85 million unused phones in Britain contain four tonnes of gold – more per tonne than a goldmine. If these metals are not recovered – and little is – we have to mine more to manufacture more and more phones.

This would not be so much of a problem if manufacturers increased the life-cycle of their phones, or better managed the launch of new models and upgrades. But the industry’s business model depends on constant upgrades – conning gullible consumers to pay extortionate prices for products that do essentially the same job as their old one. The contracts system disguises the true cost of the phone, often in the region of £600 a handset.

As Pope Francis pointed out in his encyclical Laudato Si, published last week, we share a common home with finite resources. We cannot continue to plunder the earth without imperilling the very future of our planet. He spoke with force.

He called for “a new dialogue about how we are shaping the future of our planet”. Thus far “many efforts to seek concrete solutions to the environmental crisis have proved ineffective, not only because of powerful opposition but also because of a more general lack of interest”.

Much is made of the regular Apple launches. They are normally headline news. It would be great the next time around to hear Apple boss Tim Cook talk about how it is going to contribute to the solving the problems his industry has created.

But we need to do our bit too. While we remain in thrall to our craving for the latest bit of kit, things will not change. How can we do that? Well, there’s no point in asking Siri.

  • This article first appeared in The Irish News on June 26 2015