While media coverage of the Apple iPhone is plentiful and has grown over time, stories about what happens to the popular devices once they’re thrown away are almost non-existent, Brock University research reveals.
“Stories that make connections between iPhones and electronic wastes are annihilated,” says Jennifer Good, associate professor in the Department of Communication, Popular Culture and Film.
“But these stories need to be told, since every stage of electronics’ life cycle takes a huge toll on humans and the environment,” she says.
In her recently-published research, Good used a global industry database to search content from Canadian and international newspapers and broadcasters during two time periods: when the iPhone was launched in 2007; and July 2014 to July 2015.
Good found in 2007, the term “iPhone” yielded 5,306 newspaper hits, while “electronic waste” or “e-waste” yielded 513 hits worldwide. In Canada, “iPhone” yielded 1,257 hits, while “electronic waste” or “e-waste” yielded 94 hits.
But, there were only four stories in international newspaper articles containing “iPhone” and “electronic waste” or “e-waste” in the same article. In Canada, there were two stories.
In U.S. broadcast news, “iPhone” appeared 477 times and “electronic waste” or “e-waste” appeared 18 times, but there were no stories combining “iPhone” and “electronic waste” or “e-waste.”
In Canadian broadcast news, “iPhone” appeared 15 times and “electronic waste” or “e-waste” appeared once. There was one Canadian broadcast story combining “iPhone” and “electronic waste” or “e-waste.”
This disparity grew dramatically in the 2014-2015 search results.
Internationally, the number of iPhone newspaper stories went up 308 per cent from 2007, while the number of electronic waste stories fell 44 per cent from 2007. In Canada, iPhone stories increased 33 per cent, while electronic waste stories fell 69 per cent. There were only six stories in international newspaper articles containing “iPhone” and “electronic waste” or “e-waste” in the same article; in Canada, there was only on story.
In U.S. broadcast news, there was a 173 per cent increase in iPhone stories compared to 2007, and electronic waste stories decreased 83 per cent. In Canadian broadcast news, iPhone stories increased 80 per cent; there were two electronic waste stories compared to one in 2007.
But, U.S. and Canadian broadcasters did not air a single story containing “iPhone” and “electronic waste” or “e-waste” in the same story, according to Good’s research.
“The iPhone clearly is news, but if the iPhone is going to be news, shouldn’t some aspect of the implications be there?” says Good.
In her study, Good says that a concept called “symbolic annihilation” is what could account for the media blackout of coverage on iPhones and electronic waste.
Underlying the concept is that, if something is not discussed in the media, then it is not important — it does not exist. Social scientists usually use the term to describe the absence of representation, or underrepresentation, of a group of people based on race, sex, age, or other variables.
“When we think about the role of news and what we should be informed about, e-waste should not be getting symbolically annihilated from discussions about iPhones,” says Good.
The sale of iPhones have been increasing. By 2011, Apple had sold more than 72 million of the devices. By early 2014, more than 500 million had been sold. In the first two quarters of 2016, more than 125 million iPhones were sold.
As the shelf life of the iPhone becomes shorter and shorter, they are being thrown away at a faster rate. Combined with computers and other gadgets, electronic waste is the fastest-growing component of the municipal waste stream in both developed and some developing countries.
For example, a 2012 report by the Electronics TakeBack Coalition found that more than 142,000 computers and 416,000 mobile devices are discarded every day in the U.S.
Globally, an estimated 40 million tonnes of e-waste are generated each year, according to a 2009 study by the United Nations Environment Program.
Good cites these and other statistics in her study, “Creating iPhone Dreams: Annihilating E-waste Nightmares,” published in the November 2016 issue of the Canadian Journal of Communication.