Mobile phones are arguably the most popular electronic device, but they also present some of the greatest environmental implications. Most people keep their phones for just three years—a shorter lifespan than tablets, smart TVS, and other electronics. Keeping up with the demand for new phones requires vast resources, and the linear economy in which phones are produced, used, then discarded is depleting those resources at an alarming rate. The process also impedes opportunities for further economic gains.
While consumers used to toss their old phones in the back of a drawer, there are now more opportunities to give phones a second life. Here’s why it’s important, and what you can do to start maximizing the lifespan of your mobile phones.
The Problems with Mobile Phones’ Linear Lifespan
As with most electronics, the environmental impact of mobile phones starts with manufacturing. Smartphones contain dozens of metals, the sourcing of which calls for disruptive mining activities and use of considerable resources, including water. With 1.3 billion phones sold in 2020 alone, the amount of resources needed to produce these devices is staggering.
The majority of consumers purchase new phones, and refurbished phones make up only a small portion of industry sales. With the ongoing demand for new devices, the carbon emissions caused by manufacturing will continue to have a huge environmental impact if nothing changes. Moreover, we’ll run out of several key elements needed to manufacture mobile phones within the next century.
At the other end of a phone’s lifespan are its e-waste implications. Many phones contain single-use lithium ion batteries, which can overheat, causing fires or even explosions in landfills. Indeed, many do currently wind up in landfills, with mobile phones contributing to roughly 10% of global e-waste. In Canada, where e-waste is regulated, working with a certified recycler ensures phones are refurbished or reused whenever possible, and recycled in all other cases. Phones are processed by shredders, and metal components are smelted and repurposed. While this process is far preferable to having phones wind up in landfills, exploring other options can help to extend phones’ lifespan before recycling takes place.
An Opportunity to Give Phones New Life
Pursuing reuse and recycling opportunities for phones is no small undertaking. It requires collaboration from consumers, telecom companies, retailers, manufacturers, and recyclers. With that in mind, here are some strategies that different parties can take.
Modern mobile phones are more powerful than ever. This means they no longer become obsolete as quickly as they once did. While new models have some added features and capabilities, there are now greater opportunities to use existing models beyond their first life.
For example, if users were to wait four years to replace their phone instead of three, it would create a reduction in carbon emissions similar to those generated by the entire nation of Ireland for a whole year. An alternative would be passing along a used phone to someone who needs it, such as a friend or relative. These options would reduce streams of products needing recycling while also helping to control the use of resources.
One of the greatest areas of opportunity for giving phones new life lies in the hands of manufacturers. Their current tactic of planned obsolescence ensures phones will only be supported for so long, so consumers will need to keep buying newer models. Plus, their parts are notoriously difficult to repair. A broken headphone jack could render an entire phone useless. Manufacturers must become more willing to offer spare parts to third parties. If there’s any hope that consumers will keep their phones longer, repairs must be inexpensive and convenient.
Backing this notion are the activists across North America behind the “Right to Repair” movement, which calls for expanded repair options. Currently, there are only limited ways to repair broken phones. Manufacturers offer repairs, but they’re costly—often hundreds of dollars. Going to a third-party shop is more affordable, but it comes with the risk of voiding the phone’s warranty. If the U.S. and Canada were to pass Right to Repair legislation, it would force tech companies to share their proprietary repair information with independent businesses.
In addition, manufacturers should also design phones with reuse in mind to support a circular economy. This would allow batteries and other components to be easily replaced or upgraded, instead of prompting the purchase of a whole new phone.
Retailers & Telecom Companies
Many retailers and telecom companies have trade-in companies that incentivize refurbishment and recycling for consumers. They may receive a discount towards a new phone or cash back for trading in devices. Then, the company can sell newer-model devices at a lower price point. Retailers and telecoms can minimize their carbon footprint by offering buy-back programs or trade-in offers for consumers looking to purchase new devices, as well as attractive savings for newer-model phones that are refurbished and in good condition.
When a phone truly does reach the end of its lifespan, recycling through a trusted facility is the only way to prevent dangerous components from winding up in landfills. And, it’s the only way to ensure valuable materials are recycled instead of wasted. For every million phones, 35,274 pounds of copper could be recovered and reused, along with many other precious metals.
The opportunity for reusing metals once found in mobile phones are vast. While future phone production is an obvious example, there are many more creative solutions to consider. For instance, the medals in the Tokyo Olympics were made from recycled phones and other electronics. With cooperation from manufacturers, the potential for recycled phone materials spans far and wide.
At Quantum, we’re doing our part to give phones a second life by preparing them for resale whenever possible. For phones that can’t be resold, we retrieve reusable materials through advanced shredding processes. See the full list of products we recycle here.