Disposable Culture Revealed

426,000 cell phones are “retired” in the U.S. every day
The photo above (zoomed in version) from Chris Jordan’s “Running the Numbers” exhibition is currently showing at Von Lintel Gallery in NYC.
Here’s the opening paragraph of his artist’s statement:

Exploring around our country’s shipping ports and industrial yards, where the accumulated detritus of our consumption is exposed to view like eroded layers in the Grand Canyon, I find evidence of a slow-motion apocalypse in progress. I am appalled by these scenes, and yet also drawn into them with awe and fascination. The immense scale of our consumption can appear desolate, macabre, oddly comical and ironic, and even darkly beautiful; for me its consistent feature is a staggering complexity.

Speaking to the meaning of his work and the process by which he brings it to life, Jordan says “Running the Numbers”:

…looks at contemporary American culture through the austere lens of statistics. Each image portrays a specific quantity of something: fifteen million sheets of office paper (five minutes of paper use); 106,000 aluminum cans (thirty seconds of can consumption) and so on. My hope is that images representing these quantities might have a different effect than the raw numbers alone, such as we find daily in articles and books. Statistics can feel abstract and anesthetizing, making it difficult to connect with and make meaning of 3.6 million SUV sales in one year, for example, or 2.3 million Americans in prison, or 426,000 cell phones retired every day. This project visually examines these vast and bizarre measures of our society, in large intricately detailed prints assembled from thousands of smaller photographs.

So, how does this display of grotesque consumption and waste make you feel? It makes me feel responsible, both in my personal consumption choices and in the line of work I have chosen to pursue.

About David Burn

Co-founder and editor of AdPulp. I wrote my first ad for a political candidate when I was 17 years old. She won her race and I felt the seductive power of advertising for the first time. I worked for seven agencies in five states before launching my own practice in 2009. Today, I am head of brand strategy and creative at Bonehook in Portland, Oregon.


  1. Wow, these images are impressive. But makes me feel good about my consumer choices too.

  2. 426,000 cell phones “retired” in the U.S. every day?
    That’s 155,490,000 cell phones a year.
    There are 194,479,364 cell phones in use in the U.S. (per the CIA World Fact Book, 2006).
    Which means … (carry the three) … 80% of cell phones get replaced on a yearly basis?
    I find that highly suspect, teenage fickleness notwithstading.
    Strictly anecdotally, most people I’ve queried dump their phone every third year or so. Even assuming that my meager focus group represents a fairly small minority (say, 20% of all phone users, assuming one phone per user), that means that an equal number of cell phones (20%, or 38,896,000) get replaced THREE times a year??
    Doesn’t sound right to me.

  3. Hi guys, here’s the basis for my cell phones number, which I calculated with the help of the CEO of one of the nation’s most respected cell phone recyclers. Since finishing my Cell Phones piece I have discussed this figure with several industry analysts, who have all reached the same number, though by varying means.
    There are 238,612,781 estimated current US wireless subscribers, per the CTIA (wireless industry trade organization). If subscribers change out their handset every 18 months, which is the widely-accepted industry average (though that may be slowly improving with the new generation of better quality phones), that’s 159,075,187 million phones “retired” every year. That works out to 435,822 phones retired daily– meaning that my figure is actually 10,822 phones short (because my piece is based on the numbers from six months ago). The vast majority of the retired phones, strangely, are neither recycled (the recycling rate is less than 2%) nor discarded; hundreds of millions of them are stored unused in people’s homes.
    I understand that statistics like this can be shocking and perhaps frightening; they sure are to me. But my own approach is, rather than trying to mitigate those effects by debunking the numbers themselves (which, sadly enough, are accurate), maybe we could consider starting to talk about facing the problems that create those numbers, eh? What a concept.
    Cheers from Seattle,

  4. Mr. Jordan,
    Not trying to debunk, just trying to wrap head around. Frankly, even a number half the size you support would still be too high (especially in light of a 2% recycle rate –- yikes).
    That said, you’d probably admit that we tend to get a little too breathless about our statistics in this day and age, especially in the hard-to-prove areas (there’s those “varying means” for you).
    Lies, damn lies, and all that. Not meant to undercut your basic point, which is powerful and timely and shockingly presented … even if a bit hard to swallow. I just happen to think that the “widely held industry average” of new-phone swapping every 18 months is probably inflated (by a self-serving industry trade group, fer pete’s sake), which makes your final tally a bit suspect.

  5. Keep in mind (and we all know at least one of these people) who gets like 10 phones in a short period because they all screw up and die withing a week or month or whatever. Those people will offset those of us who get a new phone every two years or so.

  6. And some of the more agressive multi-taskers out there actually carry more than one phone on them, odd as that seems.
    Thanks for jumping in here, Chris. Your work is marvelous.

  7. The work is marvelous. Please don’t mistake my struggle with the numbers for a lack of appreciation re: the message or its execution.
    I just think it undermines the impact to overstate the problem.
    Let’s tackle it from another angle:
    The current U.S. population is roughly 302,140,000 (census.gov 2007 population clock).
    Using the last census’ (2000) figures, roughly 14% of the U.S. is 9 or under, and 1.5% is 85 or older. Assuming these numbers haven’t changed drastically, and setting our cell usage limits at those ages, we can probably fairly assume that 15% of the population does not own a cell phone.
    In other words, the remaining 256,819,000 Americans between the ages of 10 and 84 own 238,612,781 phones, to use Mr. Jordan’s figures. That’s 93% of a generously defined age demographic.
    Frankly, even allowing for “multi-taskers,” David, that number seems terribly overstated to me. I’m more inclined to trust the CIA World Fact Book than the CTIA, which would put demographic penetration closer to 77% (assuming roughly 200,000,000 phones [see above]).
    As I tried (and possibly failed) to state in my original post, I just suspect the CTIA inflates its subscriber numbers, which means, a bit further down the line, that the replacement and disposal numbers would be inflated as well. It doesn’t make Chris’ work any less powerful, but it does make it feel exaggerated.
    In this age of spin and Photoshop, you have to be bulletproof to these suspicions, or you’ll be dismissed. I’m not saying I’m right and Mr. Jorda is wrong –- I’m just about the furthest thing you’ll find from a statistician.
    I just find the numbers Chris got from the CTIA suspect.