On Blog Action Day, bloggers around the world all post articles on a single topic. This year, the topic is human rights, and as I sit here typing (or Swyping) this post into my Android mobile phone, I’m acutely aware that having a smartphone is very definitely NOT a human right. (Okay, this is going to be one of those weird, winding, philosophical posts that may not end up where we think it will. Let’s just see where it goes, okay?) So yes, human rights. But first, let me explain why I bought this phone.
Violating My Own Rules
So, you know I have this rule about not buying new plastic, right? And up until this year, I made sure that I didn’t upgrade my electronics until they were absolutely dead, and then I looked for secondhand or refurbished replacements. But I’d gone through a string of refurbished phones, each one lasting for a second and then conking out. Add to that the fact that all the apps were getting bigger while the amount of memory in the phone stayed the same, and you end up with a phone that had to be restarted several times a day and factory reset several times a month.
So this year, when I had the opportunity to upgrade my phone for free to the newest, most advanced model my provider offered (the Samsung Galaxy S4), I broke my own rules and gave in. I’m making this confession for several reasons… first, because it’s important to me not to be a hypocrite — or at least to be honest about my hypocrisy — and second, because it leads to a cool discovery but also a terrible irony. See, after I bought the phone and discovered the hundreds if not thousands or even bazillions of things I could do with it, I completely changed my blogging habits.
My Smartphone is a Tool for Activism
Every post that I’ve written since August 24 when I told you my blog was going to change for the better has been composed and published on my phone, not my computer. For example, take yesterday’s post about “fixing” the shower head: I took the photos with the phone while I was working.
I edited the photos in the phone.
I wrote the post and inserted the photos while I was riding the bus yesterday morning.
And I shared the post via social media afterwards.
This way of working is not for everyone, and I’m not suggesting that anyone else should even try it. But for me, suddenly, working in a smaller space makes me feel free to write whatever I want and not to worry about how perfect the result is. The phone has limits that the computer doesn’t have, and for some reason, those limits take the pressure off of me. I can’t make the post perfect because the phone won’t let me, so I don’t have to agonize over it. I’ve written 23 posts since August 24, not including this one. That’s over half the posts I’ve written this year. I feel re-energized and excited about blogging again. I’m having fun with it, and I hope you are too. And I hope that blogging more means I’m reaching more people with the message that we can kick our addiction to plastic. But, of course, there’s a down side.
My Smartphone Causes Human Suffering
No one has an inherent right to have a smartphone. But we all should have the right to live in a safe, unpolluted environment, free from toxic chemicals, with clean water to drink and clean air to breathe. And we should have the right to know what chemicals are used in the products we are exposed to each day. I believe that those are rights that every human — and every animal — is born with.
But sadly, the manufacturers and processors of many of the products and materials we use regularly do not agree. Electronics manufacturing is a dirty business. And mobile phones contain a lot of toxic chemicals. Whether or not those chemicals can leach out to harm the end user, they are certainly harmful to people and communities during the mining of the materials, manufacture of the product, and end of life “recycling.” Last year, the Ecology Center in Michigan published a study of toxic chemicals in 36 different cell phones.
Every phone sampled in this study contained at least one of the following hazardous chemicals: lead, bromine, chlorine, mercury and cadmium. These hazardous substances can pollute throughout a product’s life cycle, including when the minerals are extracted; when they are processed; during phone manufacturing; and at the end of the phone’s useful life. Emissions during disposal and recycling of phones as electronic waste, or “e-waste,” are particularly problematic. The mining of some tin, tantalum, tungsten and gold used in mobile phones has been linked to conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Steps We Can Take to Protect the Human Right to a Clean and Safe Environment
How many of you carry cell phones? I’m guessing that while there are some readers out there who have eschewed cell phones for environmental or philosophical reasons, most of you probably have one. They’re not going away. And as I’ve illustrated above, they definitely make life easier and better in some ways. So what can we do to mitigate the negative impacts on the lives of those who are involved in their manufacture and disposal?
1) Don’t upgrade your phone unless you really need to. To me, a new color is not a good enough reason. Does that sound judgmental? I guess it is. Watch Annie Leonard’s video The Story of Electronics.
2) Research less toxic phones and choose one with a higher rating. Visit HealthyStuff.org to see the Ecology Center’s rankings of last year’s phones. And you can visit Greenpeace’s Guide to Greener Electronics to see rankings of the top electronics companies.
3) After doing your research, write to your favorite companies and let them know you are watching and expect them to reduce the amount of toxic chemicals used in their phones. If they’ve improved, be sure and thank them before asking them to go further.
4) Visit the Electronics Take Back Coalition to learn how to responsibly recycle your phone and find a certified e-steward recycler that does not ship electronics overseas. Of course, if the phone still has some use in it after you are done, you can sell it or donate it to an organization to continue using. Don’t let your phone or other electronics contribute to shocking scenes like these photographed by Michael Ciaglo in his series AGBOGBLOSHIE: A Digital Dump.
Environmental Justice and Human Rights Are Not Separate
Stepping away from electronics for a minute, I just need to make one general comment. People often ask me which plastics are safer to eat or drink from. They are concerned about the direct contact with toxic chemicals that can leach from a product. But human health and environmental issues are not separate. Plastic products, like electronics, are made from toxic chemicals. And whether or not those chemicals can directly leach out and affect you, they impact all of us through emissions into the environment during manufacture and disposal. Caring for ourselves and caring for “those people over there” who have to live and work near and with these chemicals is the same. When we honor the human rights of all, we care for ourselves too. That’s a spiritual philosophy, but it’s also the practical, physical truth.