The blog formerly known as   Fake Plastic Fish
October 16, 2013

It’s #BlogActionDay and My Smartphone May Be Violating Your #HumanRights

imageOn 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.

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I edited the photos in the phone.

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I wrote the post and inserted the photos while I was riding the bus yesterday morning.

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And I shared the post via social media afterwards.

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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.

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.

21 comments
Anne and Snuggles
Anne and Snuggles

Hi Terry, thank you for this post. Your honesty is refreshing. I too worry about the plastic in my life, how to minimize it and I do know about the phones and am also the owner of a refurbished one that hardly lasted 2 years without all sorts of problems. Now, thanks to your recommendation I can find one that will last long and be more "green.' Yay!!!

Katja
Katja

Hi Beth! As an avid "silent" reader I finally decided to post a comment. I love your blog and I really appreciate your honesty in this post! It is a matter that made me think myself.  

I don't want to have a smartphone with blood on it, of course. However, I see that smartphones are a huge help for my deaf friends. They can finally call their friends and sign with them using video communication. You could text before that but now you can finally use the phone for what it was initially invented for. And I also see that a lot of people with all kinds of handicaps gain a lot of independence through their smartphones just because it is mobile and small. So there are a lot of fantastic gains through it. But the downsides are just devastating.

I live in Europe and googled a bit. Do you know the Fairphone? I didn't know If I could post a link but you can google it. The company is based in Europe and they try to produce their first smartphone with minimal harm to people and planet. It is not perfect but a good first step in the right direction. So I hope that ideas like that catch on!

Clif
Clif

Since I'm not on the go that much, a SP wouldn't make any sense for me,  though I use a small camera that's the same size and probably has just as much plastic as a SP.

BTW - I'm writing this from Lima, Peru. What's good here is that so many things that are encountered on a typical day are made of glass and cotton, clay and wood. What's bad - and let all who rant against government and regulations please note - the air is very dirty and smelly, emission controls are lax and there are many signs telling people not to dump garbage, with reason because litter is a problem. Sorry to say - plastic bagging is something this tourist must continually but politely reject. It's particularly bad because each storefront vendor wants their named bag in your possession - they don't want you combining things in some other vendor's bag.

It's a connected world we live in...get off the plane, turn on the laptop and there's all your stuff from the cloud, exactly as it would be at home, 4000 miles away, even "the plastic fish lady"!

jonnie
jonnie

I absolutely can see the positives in the use of a smartphone, particularly as folks spend more and more time on the move, either to work, school, whatever. The smartphone is replacing multiple devices, so folks aren't feeling the need to have e.g., an iPod, iPad, even a laptop. They're also replacing, along with the advent of cloud storage, other consumables such as [actual] credit cards, landlines, gaming systems, books, hard drives, any actual paperwork, energy, etc. This is a major positive in terms of consumption of resources, etc. There is a big picture.

On a personal note, for you to be able to blog on the go is wonderful, and I -for one- am enjoying the more frequent, spontaneous posts! Knowing you, you will utilize your smartphone to the max, and will quickly reduce your total electronic/etc. consumption.

ducky 2
ducky 2

I have no mobil phone and can see no use for one if I use the landline once a week it is unusual. I do e-mail but less than on a day. Why does everyone need to talk or text all the time?

SarahKathrynSchumm
SarahKathrynSchumm

This post resonates with me because I have been hemming and hawing about getting a smartphone. I got the cheapest no contract one I could find and it was a huge mistake, now with only about 8 hours of battery life at work, tops and horrible reception at work ( work is the only reason I "needed" a smartphone) So now I have no choice but to replace it 3 months after buying it. I want to buy the MotoX specifically because it's the first American Made smartphone, but the idea of dropping upwards of $600 on a phone or having a contract is daunting, but I want to send the message that where the phone is manufactured actually matters to me. 

Mary of Santa Cruz
Mary of Santa Cruz

I applaud your honesty Beth, but I will tell you it is possible to be a viable writer (I am a professional with over 25 years experience and clients across the country) who does not have a cellphone or smartphone. Never have. I use my landline, Internet and my laptop which I replace every 5-7 years or so when absolutely necessary.  I figure I have saved the earth several cellphones and laptops in the past 15 years. One day, I might succumb to the smartphone world, but for now, I am connected, competent and a communicating. It is possible to live in this world without one; and as I am discovering lately, now a trendsetter (LOL) as more and more professionals try to disconnect from the digital leash on a regular basis. Thanks for your excellent blogs! 

veganmama
veganmama

The reason I read your blog and listen to what you have to say is because of your integrity Beth. It's impossible to live on this Earth without impact and that you're doing the best you can while living in suburbia is amazing. You've made me think and reconsider so many aspects of the way I live and impact the Earth.

I do have a cell phone but it's not an android, it's a $65 Pantech that I bought ONLY because I lost my flip phone while picking up trash at the beach! How's that for ironic . . . I pay as I go, no contract. I use it for emergencies because I live 30 miles from town and although I own a reliable 19 year-old Volvo wagon, I have had snaffoos . . . Since you've laid your cards on the table, I have to admit I have a 27" iMac (that I love). I bought it because of my photography. My son has your same phone so I'm familiar with it's size. I have trouble 'typing' on a tiny phone and am impressed that you've been using it for your blog posts! As I look to downsize life even more, I may choose to downsize my computer but only when it gives up the ghost. I had my prior PC and laptop for 9 years when they both quit and I upgraded. Same with my cars. My Volvo has 250,00 miles and I keep it well maintained and drive it as little as possible. 

I always look for places where I can improve my awareness and SO appreciate your information. Thank you Beth!

BethTerry
BethTerry moderator

@Katja Hi.  I've read about the Fairphone but haven't done that much research since it's not available in the United States.  It seems like a really great first step.  If you do some more research or end up ordering one, please let us know what you learn.

BethTerry
BethTerry moderator

@Clif OR stay on the plane, turn on my smartphone in airplane mode, connect to wifi, and access my stuff while in the clouds.  My last Burning Man post was composed and published on an airplane on my way to Hawaii.  I have to admit I love technology.  I would love it if we could find ways to create awesome things without hurting each other and the planet.  Which are not separate things.

BethTerry
BethTerry moderator

@jonnie I love that I only have to turn on my computer a few times a week instead of everyday.  The mobile phone uses less energy.  Now, the big issue is where the energy is coming from to power all the servers that hold our data in the cloud.  Cloud technology could be so great if it were powered by wind and solar.  Not as great when you realize most is still powered by fossil fuels.  We need to support web hosts that are using alternative sources of energy.  Unfortunately, I'm not there yet because the few that I have tried to date have not been reliable.  Still looking for a great one.  (I tried Canvas Dreams and Green Geeks.  Did not like either.)

BethTerry
BethTerry moderator

@ducky 2 We all have different needs and different lifestyles.  For myself, I am trying to reach people around the globe with a message and want to use whatever means are available.  But as I said in the post, using a smartphone is not for everyone.  We're just different.

SarahKathrynSchumm
SarahKathrynSchumm

@ducky 2 

In my case I need it for work because I work in a large factory with two locations, frequently we need to relay design information and information on production, to my boss or engineers sometimes very detailed minute to minute, while my boss is coordinating in another building and text is the fastest clearest way to do this. I don't have ready access to a computer so e mail doesn't work, and it saves a lot of energy versus having a telephone line or computer at my station. Sometimes an engineer would even be out of state or even the country at a supplier and need to give me a design revision, it saves a lot of waste, when you consider how much the things I make cost to manufacture in material, energy and money. This is about 80% of what I actually need a smart phone for, right now my phone isn't capable of accepting e mails or blueprints, and it would really help if it could. 

BethTerry
BethTerry moderator

@SarahKathrynSchumm Great to know about a phone assembled in the United States.  Just be aware that the materials still come from overseas.  Both Motorola and Samsung have posted policies on conflict minerals.  I need to make time to read the whole thing and understand what they are really saying.  

Here's Motorola's:  http://responsibility.motorola.com/index.php/suppliers/conflictminerals/

Here's Samsung's:  http://www.samsung.com/us/aboutsamsung/sustainability/suppliers/conflictminerals/

BethTerry
BethTerry moderator

@Mary of Santa Cruz Hi Mary.  I have no doubt that most writers probably don't use cell phones.  I was just sharing my personal experience, which has more to do with my own psychology and tendency towards perfectionism when sitting at the computer vs. the freedom I experience when using my phone.  As I said in the post, I'm not recommending it to anyone else.  Just explaining why it works for me.

BethTerry
BethTerry moderator

@veganmama My secret to "typing" on such a tiny keyboard... something called "Swype."  You don't pick up your fingers when making words.  See the orange loop across the keyboard in the top picture?  That was me swyping the word "day".  (It could also be "fay" but since that's not the most common word, Swype guesses what it thinks is the most likely and gives you a list of alternatives if it hasn't chosen what you meant.)  

Anyway, I'm not explaining this because I think you should do it.  Just because I think it's interesting.  I think you should do whatever works for you!

SarahKathrynSchumm
SarahKathrynSchumm

@BethTerry @SarahKathrynSchumm Yeah, that's one reason I'm still on the fence about whether or not to get it. Is "assembled in" the United States enough of a push in the right direction or should I keep holding out. Working in manufacturing I have more insight into why things get outsourced than your average person so a part of me feels like, as with the product I build, if enough people buy something that's going in the right direction, even if it isn't perfect it will create more demand. Like it would be great if we COULD make cars everyone can afford, but we can't yet, but everyone who buys the expensive one is helping pay for the development of the affordable one.

Mary of Santa Cruz
Mary of Santa Cruz

@BethTerry @Mary of Santa Cruz Thanks so much for your thoughtful reply Beth. I understand the freedom from perfectionism -- an interesting twist on what I think of as another digital leash. 

I do think, though, I am an anomaly; most writers I know are smartphone-connected. I am resisting....but ultimately will give in. Just will make sure I buy a phone that I love so it lasts a long time. ;)

BethTerry
BethTerry moderator

@Mary of Santa Cruz @BethTerry Oh!  And I didn't mean most writers don't use cell phones for making calls, texting, checking email, etc.  Sorry... I just realized it came across that way.  What I meant is that most writers probably don't use their cell phones to do the actual writing.

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