Water Resistant iPhone 7 Could Combat E-Waste

September 7th 2016

Lucy Tiven

Nothing stings quite like losing a perfectly good iPhone to water damage.

Luckily, Apple has delivered some good news to anyone prone to a case of the butterfingers: the new iPhone 7 is water-resistant. It's worth mentioning that Samsung, Motorola and other companies have long offered water-proof phones. But the popularity of the iPhone could make the feature have a significant impact.

Unveiled Wednesday, the iPhone's water resistant feature doesn't just benefit consumers. It also could help combat e-waste: the environmental hazards created by discarded electronics.

Americans discarded about 2.37 million tons of electronic waste — TVs, computers, cell phones, printers, scanners, and faxes — in 2009, according to the EPA.

In recent years, the U.S. has shipped massive amounts of these discarded electronics to Third World countries such as India, China, and South Africa, reporter Andrew J. Hawkins explains on the Verge.

"Exported e-waste has turned rivers in China black and towns in Ghana into some of the world’s largest dumps," Hawkins writes.

In May, the Basil Action Network published a report on a two-year study that used GPS devices to track electronic waste left at American recycling sites.

Sixty-five out of the 200 devices BAN followed were shipped overseas and often ended up in Asia, and were believed to be shipped illegally, BAN reported. And those were just electronics people intended to recycle — about 75 percent of e-waste is amassed in landfills, the EPA reports.

BAN traveled to rural Hong Kong, where some of the devices landed and discovered that they were often dismantled by illegal immigrant laborers in unpermitted factories and junkyards.

These conditions exposed both workers and the environment to toxic mercury from LCD monitors and other electronic parts, BAN concluded.

As part of the BAN study, MIT created an interactive map illustrating how the devices traveled.

Our E-Waste problem is getting worse.

“Unfortunately, we are seeing considerable backsliding in the electronics industry today compared to just a few years ago,” BAN Executive Director Jim Puckett said in a statement. “Toxic e-waste is flowing off our shores every day to substandard operations, harming people and the environment across the globe. Meanwhile, these exports deprive our own nation of green jobs and make it difficult for responsible electronics recyclers to compete and survive.”

Apple's decision to waterproof its newest iPhone may mean fewer iPhones that land in toilets or pools could go directly landfills — which could curb e-waste to some extent. But Apple and iPhone users have also contributed to e-waste in significant ways.

In a 2015 Gallup poll, iPhone users were split on whether they upgraded smartphone models due to disrepair (47 percent) or upgrade allowances from service providers (51 percent), but only 2 percent traded up right when a new model was released.

So while the waterproofing could have a positive impact, it also possible that those prompted to purchase new phones when their provider allows it will do so and throw away their old phones, contributing to e-waste in the process.

Apple also has lobbied aggressively to prevent right-to-repair acts — which would grant people cheaper options to fix, rather than replace broken phones. So while it's good that the company is introducing a feature that will make its products less damage-prone, they also aggressively promote new iPhone models and make it difficult to repair broken ones.

The conversation over e-waste also delves into local and international laws.

The United States has no federal law requiring the recycling of e-waste and is the only nation in the developed world that hasn't ratified an international treaty that would make it illegal to dump e-waste in the developing world, according to the Verge.

From the Verge:

"The US has no federal law requiring e-waste be recycled. Currently, only 25 states in the US have laws establishing a funding system for the collection and recycling of electronic products, as well as bans against sending electronics to landfills. In the other 25 states, tossing toxic e-waste into the trash is perfectly legal."

Apple also bears some responsibility. The company has lobbied aggressively to prevent right-to-repair acts — which would grant people cheaper options to fix, rather than replace broken phones.