‘Silicon Mountain’ Advocates For More Tech Re-Use

Planned obsolescence has resulted in billions of pounds of e-waste — but it doesn’t have to be that way.

When Apple released the iPhone 12 earlier this year, much of the ensuing outrage centered around the charger. In an attempt to shift to a more sustainable model of minimal packaging, the Cupertino computing giant announced it would not be including a power brick with every handset, as it had customarily done in the past. Predictably, some consumers were annoyed at the thought of having to buy an extra $19 USB-C charger adaptor on top of the already pricey device.

While the new charger policy made for clicky headlines, and momentarily focused public attention on just how many glossy plastic cubes we all have floating around our homes, it does little to address the broader problem of e-waste. Every time a new iPhone hits the market, millions rush to buy the latest, shiniest version. Inevitably, the devices they already have join billions of pounds of glass, heavy metals, and other toxic materials buried in a landfill or gathering dust in a desk drawer — their usable parts never reintroduced into manufacturing. 

“Silicon Mountain,” a 25-minute documentary released by the Vested Group, an IT management company based in Texas, presents a few different solutions, for both the consumer and producer. Recycling to salvage usable parts or minerals is one option, according to “Silicon Mountain,” though the current recycling model for electronics has also been criticized elsewhere for contributing to pollution by releasing toxic vapors into the atmosphere during the mineral-extraction process. 

Repairing is yet another, though so much of the onus relies on the manufacturers, who have a “baked-in incentive” to make their devices difficult to fix. Once your battery life starts waning, chances are, there’ll be a new phone announced in a flashy launch event within the year, presenting itself as a much easier, prettier way of upgrading your device.

“This is not an inevitable outcome,” Kyle Wiens, the CEO of iFixit, said in “Silicon Mountain.” “This is a situation we have been intentionally put into by product designers over the last decades.”

That is, perhaps, the most biting critique “Silicon Mountain” makes. Consumers don’t care about the afterlife of their products (not with any “malicious apathy,” according to Joel Patterson, the founder of the Vested Group) because companies make it enticing not to. The results can be disastrous, especially as our globe is on the brink of a climate change catastrophe (some even argue that we’re currently living in it). But for all their attempts to minimize packaging waste, longevity isn’t exactly a selling point for a lot of these products. An average iPhone battery life will last a measly two years. Apple has admitted to slowing down older models with software updates it claims are intended to prolong the life of the devices. And airpods, one of the crowning achievements in the company’s vision for a wireless empire, are fire hazards for recyclers because of the lithium-ion batteries that make the Airpods lighter and faster to charge.

“Airpods are one of the most evil products ever created,” Wiens says. If any of the three batteries are punctured, they can cause a fire, making it especially hazardous for recyclers.

The hope that “Silicon Mountain” wants to elucidate is that there are ways to move forward from this man-made problem, especially when it’s widely recognized. Recently, Massachusetts voters overwhelmingly passed a “Right to Repair” initiative, which allows people access to their cars’ repair information. It’s one part of a larger conversation Patterson wants to initiate when it comes to any kind of e-waste — “If I can’t even repair it, do I actually own it?” Or will you be stuck in a loop of constant, potentially hazardous consumerism instead? 

“Everybody can recognize that it makes sense to recycle something rather than dig something else out of the ground,” Patterson says. “The status is that it takes 200 pounds of earth to make one phone.” 

“More than anything else, it’s just respecting the world we live in.”

Grace Z. Li covers arts, culture and food. gli@sfweekly.com

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