Why I’m not buying the new iPhone: Electronic waste and the “upgrade” culture

PennPIRG Advocate, Emma Horst-Martz, reacts to Apple's latest product launch. 

Emma Horst-Martz

Advocate, PennPIRG

In typical Apple fashion, CEO Tim Cook took the stage last month to introduce his company’s newest products. Wearing his color-coordinated blue cashmere sweater, teal Apple Watch, and grey-framed glasses, he walked viewers through the new, upgraded versions of our favorite products: the Apple Watch, iPhone 13, and iPad. He explained that the colors are brighter, the camera images sharper and the processing speed even faster. 

But here’s the thing: Under all of that slick talk, there’s an ugly environmental crisis.

Three years ago, an Apple store worker convinced me to upgrade my iPhone after I had shattered my screen. While my expensive replacement phone still works just fine today, each time Apple releases an update I see how quickly and how much technology changes and improves. I wonder: Wouldn’t it be fun to treat myself to a new phone with upgraded features such as a longer-lasting battery, fancy new camera, and a fresh scratch-free screen? It’s certainly tempting — like many other consumers, I’m not immune to the clean lines of a new iPhone. 

However, as a political organizer working to improve tech policies, I now have a better sense than I did three years ago of the full cost — beyond just the sticker price — of a new smartphone. Americans throw away 416,000 cell phones every single day. It’s not because we like burning money: rather, equipment manufacturers including Apple have contributed to a culture of waste by nurturing consumers’ desire to upgrade. The hype and constant barrage of marketing and advertising around their annual product drops can make us feel like the expensive phone we bought from them last year somehow isn’t good enough anymore. 

Apple often touts its “recycling” program, which might ease consumers’ reservations about upgrading. Environmentally conscious people like me might feel better about getting rid of an old iPhone if we think it will be recycled. But this program isn’t as sustainable as you’d think. Apple takes many of these phones apart and builds new products with them — a very resource-intensive process —  instead of refurbishing them for resale. 

On a broader scale, across the United States, less than a quarter of our electronic waste gets recycled. So the vast majority of our electronics end up in landfills or incinerators. From landfills, the toxic heavy metals in all our tech gadgets leach into the soil and pollute our waterways. From incinerators, they cause air pollution for neighboring communities and those downwind. We know that this has serious consequences for our environment and public health. 

So what could I have done differently back in 2018 when my phone broke? I could have paid Apple the big bucks to replace the screen. Or I could’ve taken it to an independent repair shop to get the screen replaced. Or better yet, I could’ve fixed it myself. But herein lies the conundrum: Based on its restrictions on third-party repairs, one might think that Apple doesn’t want us to have those options.

Many manufacturers, including Apple, have created what many call a monopoly on repair services and parts. So when you get your iPhone screen replaced at an independent repair shop, the phone might display a threatening message warning you that the screen wasn’t made by Apple and could harm the phone. According to some sources, this isn’t true. Apple has created all sorts of ways to make consumers think twice about going to less expensive repair shops to get their products fixed. Apple has also made it difficult or impossible for independent repairers to get the tools, parts, and manuals they need to fix devices for customers who don’t want to pay Apple’s monopoly-inflated prices. 

A growing group of advocates, consumers, business leaders and elected officials are fighting for the Right to Repair, because they want people to be able to use their stuff for a longer period of time. But to achieve that, we need to be able to fix our stuff ourselves or take it to the repairperson of our choice. It’s high time we require big tech companies to sell replacement parts, tools, and access to repair information to anyone for a reasonable price. 

My iPhone isn’t perfect, but it gets the job done and that’s good enough for me. An upgrade isn’t worth the cost to my wallet or the planet and I’m onto the company’s games. Better luck next time, Tim.


Emma Horst-Martz

Advocate, PennPIRG

Emma runs campaigns and organizational work in Pennsylvania and New Jersey. She enjoys spending time at the public parks and running trails of her hometown of Philadelphia and going down the shore with her family.