Why I Support China’s ‘Scam’ Frankenstein iPhones



The Telegraph newspaper brought to light this week an apparently widespread practice in China in which broken old iPhones are stripped for parts, and functioning iPhones are built with those parts.

The newspaper called it a “scam,” because the sellers of such phones often lie and say they’re new. And in fact that is a scam.

Our own Buster Heine calls them “Frankenstein iPhones,” and that’s a monstrously good name for it.

But I call the general idea of a large-scale refurb effort one of the best ways to improve the environmental impact of a dangerously irresponsible industry.

What Is a Frankenstein iPhone, Exactly?

The practice of building Frankenstein iPhones has apparently become big business — a “booming” industry, according to the Telegraph — in south-east China where enormous numbers of non-functioning iPhones are smuggled into China from abroad, collected in workshops, disassembled, their parts tested and the functioning bits re-assembled into iPhones that can be passed off as brand new. They’re even “carefully polished to make them indistinguishable from new devices” and often placed into counterfeit boxes manufactured by the refurbishing companies.

Now let’s deconstruct the various activities happening in all this, and make some spot judgements on their respective moralities.

1. Smuggling broken iPhones into China. This is clearly illegal, but it doesn’t seem particularly immoral. A one-party authoritarian government controlled by a single political party that also controls the media, the military and employs millions of censors and propagandists — now that’s immoral.

2. Disassembling iPhones into parts. This activity is either moral or immoral depending on the safety and working conditions of the employees hired to engage in this thankless activity. If the workers are children, exposed to toxic chemicals without protection, forced to work long hours in sweatshop conditions without enough time off, then it’s immoral. However, there’s nothing inherently immoral about taking apart iPhones.

3. Re-assembling parts into functioning iPhones. Again, working conditions matter. But building a functional iPhone from parts is perfectly sound, morally speaking.

4. Selling refurbished iPhones. Heck, Apple does it. As long as the phone is in good condition, the battery has plenty of life left in it and the price reflects the actual condition, there’s nothing wrong with selling — or buying — a refurbished phone.

5. Selling a refurbished phone and telling the buyer it’s new. Immoral and illegal and, yes, a scam.

So what’s the connection between all these individual components of the “Frankenstein” refurb industry?

My view is that the abuses present — the potentially unsafe conditions, the lying about the nature of the phone — are likely connected to the illegality of importing phones for refurbishment and also the physical difficulty of refurbishing phones that were not designed to be refurbished. Make all this totally legal, and make the phones easily refurbishable, and the totality of refurbishing phones becomes totally moral.

On balance, however, the environmental morality of refurbished phones is so high that even if it’s sold as new in a black-market scam, the overall practice of selling a refurbished phone is probably more moral than selling a new phone. Here’s why.

Why Smartphones Are Bad for the Environment

One of the central conundrums of modern life is that some of the things we love the most are in fact super bad for the environment. Cars, for example. Or smartphones.

Now, I’m not a tree-hugging, preachy, finger-wagging enviro-hipster. But I am a huge fan of clean air, clean water and the future in general.

Smartphones are loaded with super toxic compounds like arsenic, beryllium, cadmium, copper, mercury and lead. The plastic has often been treated with brominated flame retardants, which can end up in the food supply and cause cancer. Even the non-toxic materials in phones are energy-consuming, pollution-creating industries.

In the United States, the average smartphone user keeps each phone for about one year. One estimate says that 140,000,000 cell phones end up in landfills worldwide, leaching a collective 80,000 pounds of lead into the earth and groundwater supply. Only 10 percent of smartphones in the US are recycled.

But recycling involves removing the phone from usage, which ultimately requires a theoretical replacement phone to be manufactured.

About half the environmental impact of a smartphone takes place before the phone even leaves the assembly line.

Companies like Apple, pressured by environmental groups, try to “minimize” the most egregious environmental costs.

But ultimately, there’s no avoiding the stark truth that the only environmentally friendly smartphone is that one you don’t build.

How do you avoid building a smartphone? By refurbishing and putting into use one that has already been built.

We look at the usability of a phone the wrong way. When any single component of a phone stops working, we tend to think that the phone is done for and useless.

Instead, we should think about each component separately. If the screen is smashed, and the battery is dead, but everything else works fine, the phone should be fitted from the screen of another phone where some other component was broken but the screen intact. Add in a newish battery, and a new Frankenstein phone is raised from the slab.

If you increase the number of phones refurbished worldwide by 10 million, then you decrease the number of new phones that have to be manufactured by 10 million — an enormous reduction in the environmental impact of the smartphone industry.

Apple itself is a mixed bag when it comes to “Refurbishability.”

On the one hand, Apple deserves enormous blame for putting elegance over ease of refurbishing. Apple is increasingly using more glue and making other decisions that make it harder and harder to take their phones apart and replace parts.

But on the other, Apple’s policy of making a tiny number of phone types and selling them at massive scale is actually good for the environment. That’s why refurb shops really, really want iPhones and aren’t interested in the many iPhone competitors. It’s much easier to cobble together the parts for an iPhone than it is for some random Samsung phone model that sold a tiny fraction of the units. And it’s easier to sell an iPhone, too.

China’s underground industry of building Frankenstein phones is called a crime and a scam. But to me, the far bigger crime and the bigger scam is an industry that’s largely indifferent to refurbing phones. Clearly they don’t want to make and sell fewer phones, so they’re happy build phones that are very hard to refurbish, either because they make a too many makes to achieve refurb economies of scale (Samsung) or because they emphasize smallness and lightness over the ability to take a phone apart, replace parts and refurbish the phones.

So Telegraph newspaper and everybody else chiming in: Let’s stop calling Frankenstein phones a scam, and instead focus on the real scam — which is the government and industry decisions that make Frankenstein phones difficult, dangerous and illegal to make.

  • dcj001

    “Smartphones are loaded with super toxic compounds like arsenic, beryllium, cadmium, copper, mercury and lead.”

    I did not know that copper is toxic. Kids put pennies in their mouths. Is this unsafe? Does this explain the stupidity and illiteracy of most people?

    “That’s shy refurb shops really, really want iPhones and aren’t interested in the many iPhone competitors.”

    I have read this sentence several times. I do not understand how to read the following phrase, and what the following phrase means:

    “That’s shy refurb shops really.”

    • dpacemaker

      On the last part I believe he meant “why”, a typo that should have been caught before posting.

    • drkrpr

      I’m sure mining copper doesn’t impact the environment at all – way to go, condescending one. Just remember to use a brain every now and then, mankind thanks you in advance.

    • Mykeljon

      Most metals are toxic to some degree. What matters is how much you are exposed to. Spending your entire working day handling those materials improperly will definitely damage your health. A child who occasionally puts a penny in his mouth will not poison himself, but he might choke to death if he swallows it. And “shy” should be “why”.

  • Alex Devane

    Isn’t this why Apple has a recycling program where old or broken devices can be taken and recycled responsibly by Apple?
    And why Apple’s devices are in fact designed specially to be repaired (yes you heard me right) but only by special machines that Apple own. Yes, Apple devices are becoming less and less user fixable but that doesn’t make the products bad for the environment when an Apple store would happily fix it or recycle it.

  • Gary Deezy

    “and functioning iPhones are build with those parts.” — I love you guys, but seriously, do you not have an editor?

  • Mike, this is a well-reasoned article and I agree with you. It’s far better to repair/refurbish old iPhones than to trash them. The broken parts will, indeed, be trashed, but the quantity of saved parts will be substantial and will keep that exact amount out of the landfills. I don’t agree with the practice of selling them as new, as this is simply a lie. However, if the phone works well, lasts a long time and does what an iPhone is supposed to do, it’s a lie I’d put up with.

  • abc905

    “A one-party authoritarian government controlled by a single political party that also controls the media, the military and employs millions of censors and propagandists — now that’s immoral.”

    Whoa there! hold your political horses!

  • Trí Phởn

    lol, these things have been happening in mah country for a while now ..
    secondhanded iphones

  • Jonathan King

    What happens when one of these phones has been put together incorrectly and the battery explodes or electrocutes the user?

    @dcj001:disqus while metallic copper isn’t that toxic (it is relatively unreactive and so cannot be absorbed), its compounds are – a few grams of copper sulphate can kill an adult.

    • OK Jonathan, slow the over-reaction. No iPhone that I’ve ever heard of has ever “electrocuted” a user. There’s simply not enough battery power to do anything more than give a person an unpleasant shock. As for the battery exploding, this can happen (rarely) even in new iPhones. The problem with batteries exploding, as I understand it, is in the original manufacturing process of the batteries, not the phones themselves, so I think your concerns about them exploding is (pardon the pun) overblown. It could happen, but I think it would be about as rare as new iPhone batteries exploding (i.e. so rarely that it’s statistically insignificant).

      I’m with Mike. I’d rather see these phones getting re-used rather than trashed. We have way too much of a throwaway society as it is, and it’s nice to hear someone is making a profit out of recycled parts (even if it is deceptive and false advertising as “new” phones).

  • Brian Cook

    Isn’t this kind of like arguing it is ok for someone to steal your house and property if they are going to build a windmill or solar power plant on it? Selling a refurbished phone as new is simply wrong, think of the guy who buys a shady phone then is stuck when it breaks and he finds out it doesn’t have a warranty, do you think he cares that the environment benefited?

    Lets have a test of how much you believe your own words… Could you send me your credit card number so I can drain your bank account its ok because I’m going to give most of it to homeless children.

    P.S. The editing mistakes are just a sign of the total amount of thought put into this silly article.

    • mahadragon

      Your analogy is so wrong. Nobody is stealing these iPhones. These are iPhones that are cracked and are going into the trash anyways. If you want to make an analogy a more appropriate one would be taking a home that is abandoned and slated for demolition and mixing the wood from that house with another house to save the environment.

  • bayonetbrant

    “If the workers are children, exposed to toxic chemicals without protection, forced to work long hours in sweatshop conditions without enough time off, then it’s immoral.”

    That’s not inherently an iPhone argument. That could apply to tennis shoes or children’s toys or machine guns or any other manufactured item.

  • No matter how thin you slice it, it’s still baloney. This practice has the potential to harm Apple. Buyers may not know that these are “Frankenstein” iPhones. If they don’t work properly, Apple could get the blame. If you’re worried about environmental impacts, why not become an advocate of recycling rather than operating a scam iPhone refurbishing industry? I find your comparison to Apple selling refurbished iPhones to be ridiculous. Unlike the scammers, Apple tests every component of the refurbished iPhone, and they also offer a warranty. Wouldn’t it be better for someone who is worried about the environment to buy refurbished products directly from Apple instead? It’s a shame that China is controlled by a communist totalitarian regime. Imagine the creativity that would be unleashed there if they were a free nation.

  • mahadragon

    Don’t understand why Elgan makes the ridiculous comment about children making iPhones. Apple has never done that where’s the proof? On one hand we have people like Mike Daisey who has published an article that he admits wasn’t truthful about horrible working conditions at Apple factories in China. Of course that article was duplicated in the NY Times as being fact. Where’s the other side? I’ve never seen a shred of proof of 9 yr olds making iPhones.

    • Nick_Germ

      Heres a link to an article where Apple’s president of operations is quoted saying “We go deep in the supply chain to find it,” Williams said. “And when we do find it, we ensure that the underage workers are taken care of, the suppliers are dealt with.”


  • mahadragon

    I think things are a bit overblown with selling the phones as new. China is a different ball game. The people aren’t stupid. They know knockoffs are popular and if a $6 Polo by Ralph Lauren is too good to be true it probably is. They even have a name for it, they call it genuine fake. It means, if the product looks to be a good quality, compared to what they pay, them it’s still a good purchase. A $6 Polo might indeed be fake, but if it’s comfortable and looks good, what’s the harm?

    Selling an iPhone with used parts as new might be wrong, but in China the people are already aware that you can’t always trust the label. Besides, part of me says the phone is new. If you took good wood from a couple of abandoned houses and made a new house out of that wood you could sell it as a new house. I don’t see how doing it with a phone is that much different.

    • Brian Cook

      Where does the article state they are only sold in China?

  • Barrett Jasper

    Agreed it’s a great idea but they should be labeled as refurbs or repaired is all. Tech is a HUGE environmental disaster. When you can go buy a printer let’s say for cheaper than new toner for your current one, that’s a problem. People simply buy new ones and toss the old ones thus filling out planted with garbage that’s not biodegradeable.

  • Nick_Germ

    Mike, i have to say great article. Every week i look forward to your articles on here and cultofandroid. I don’t always agree with your viewpoints, but they are always thought provoking.

  • raventrading .

    There is one important point you have missed, which may sway opinion somewhat. For quite a few years now, mobile phone repair and refurbishment in Asia has been controlled and used by the Triads to launder money. They offer cash for phones on most street corners and in the same way that begging is largely controlled by organised crime, so is the mobile phone repair/refurb industry. More moral dilemmas!