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.