Why Is Every E-Waste Infographic Misleading?

e-waste infographic from MBAonline.com about the true cost of an iPhone

The business education site MBAonline.com recently published an infographic called “The True Cost of an iPhone,” which presents some interesting facts about the iPhone’s supply chain and end-of-life. It’s been picked up a few places, including TechRepublic.

Though this infographic is considerably more comprehensive than many others about e-waste, it suffers from some of the same problems. My basic quibble with all e-waste infographics I’ve encountered is the same: numbers about e-waste are unreliable, unverifiable, and often outdated. Because the infographic form translates numbers into pretty pictures, it glosses over complexity and makes numbers seem much more solid than they are.

For example, the infographic says, “Up to 80% of recycled iPhones are shipped to places like Guiyu, China, where they are stripped of valuable parts.” That 80% number comes from a single interview conducted by the Basel Action Network and has been picked up widely. But many other reports contradict that claim. The EPA states only that it doesn’t have enough information to comment on how much e-waste is exported. It’s a frustrating example of the inaccurate Internet citation cycle that webcomic author Randall Munroe has termed “citogenesis.”

Actually, it’s unlikely any iPhones are being exported—most exported e-waste is older equipment that can’t be easily sold for reuse here, such as CRT monitors and old VCRs. Old iPhones can still be resold through companies such as Recellular for a pretty nice profit. Someday, iPhones may join the exported e-waste ranks. But not yet.

The MBAOnline infographic is beautifully put together, and I’m a fan of anything that gets people thinking about the sources and consequences of gadget consumption. I love that it considers design, manufacturing, and e-waste—then gives you a nice list of ways you can be a more responsible consumer. But take these numbers with a grain of salt:

Created by MBAonline.com