Tech

Tech companies aren’t doing enough to keep their devices out of landfills, and neither are we

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Managing the electronic waste problem will take a much bigger commitment

It seems like every tech company is trying to sell their products as environmentally responsible. That's why Apple claims its latest iPhone 12 line comes without a charging block in the box, for example.

But that hasn't stopped tech companies from coming out with a host of new phones every year, and the old models we own get discarded, sometimes even thrown away in the trash and end up in landfills.

In 2019, nearly 153 million smartphones were sold according to Gartner, and in 2018, users were keeping their phones for about 2 years, but that time period is likely to drop as folks upgrade to 5G-capable phones. 

Kyle Wiens, CEO of iFixit said that new influx of discarded phones isn't easy to manage. "We don't have the technology to take a truck full of old iPhones, molt them down, grind them up and make new iPhones out of them. It's flat out physically impossible."

"Smartphones and tablets are challenging," John Shegerian, CEO of ERI says. "Many of them are no longer made with screws; they're made with glue. Glue makes things very hard to take apart and recover materials from because it degrades the value of the commodity product itself."

About 6.9 million metric tons of e-waste was produced in the US alone in 2019, according to Global E-Waste Monitor, a research group that tracks electronic waste. That's about the same weight as 19 Empire State Buildings. Of that, only about 15% was collected for recycling. And some of the minerals and metals being thrown away with our e-waste aren't just valuable; they're toxic.

Creating a phone that stayed relevant for four or five years instead of one or two could make a huge difference. Until phones are made to last much longer, Apple, Google, Samsung and others have to do more to fix this problem of e-waste, and consumers need to be more responsible when buying and discarding their devices.

Check out CNBC's deep dive into the e-waste problem and some solutions in the video.