With the rise in the use of electronics in our daily life, and the increased pace in which these technologies are advancing, smartphones, laptops and tablets are slowly but surely contributing to the globe’s next pollution epidemic: electronic waste. Yes, not everybody tosses away their laptop or smartphone when they get a new one, but enough people do it to make e-waste a global phenomenon. The World Economic Forum has surmised that the US alone throws away 9.4 million tons of e-waste each year, including 152 million phones per annum.
So, how can people help eradicate the e-waste problem without knowing it? A sub-industry of the smartphone world is developing, which is seeing refurbished smartphones take on a second or third life with a new owner, instead of being thrown into the pile of e-waste that’s growing five times faster than the rate of the human population.
More smartphones, less raw materials
Before we get into how the used smartphone market is contributing toward tackling e-waste, let’s talk about the materials that go into manufacturing just one smartphone – some of them being non-renewable and others being highly toxic for the environment.
Each smartphone is made of plastic, metal and glass components: Plastic is derived from oil from drilling into the ground, which ends up at a manufacturer that creates parts for smartphones. Metals are extracted from mines, which are eventually transported using fuels to cellphone plants. Glass is made from silica that’s extracted from a quarry and eventually transported, in the same way, to manufacturers. All of these processes require water, a valuable and non-renewable resource, and also require transportation methods that aren’t exactly solar powered. Creating a smartphone also uses critical raw materials and precious earth metals like gold, silver, copper, palladium, tungsten and molybdenum – all non-renewable and all going to e-waste when a smartphone user dumps their phone. In addition to smartphones, it takes 530 pounds of fossil fuel, 48 pounds of chemicals and 1.5 tons of water to create one computer and monitor.
In the US alone, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has concluded that if (and that’s a big ‘if’) one million cell phones are recycled, 772 pounds of silver, 75 pounds of gold, 33 pounds of palladium and 35,274 pounds of copper can be recovered. All in all, each time a smartphone brand releases a new model, the earth’s raw materials take a knock, and the human desire to have the latest smartphone means that e-waste grows larger and more aggressive. In the face of all of this, Greenpeace’s electronics expert Manfred Santen suggested at the 2017 World Mobile Congress conference that it is time people start considering if they need a contract that gives them a brand new phone every 12 to 24 months.
Going used is going green
The used smartphone market is no longer just young adults trying to sell their old phones so that they have extra cash for the month. In 2018, it’s now a $17 billion industry that has a 50 percent year-on-year growth rate in units and a number of startups around the world that are taking the sale and purchase of second-hand smartphones into a professional space.
Aside of the industry’s massive potential and exponential growth rate, the second-hand trend is also becoming one of the most environmentally friendly ways to tackle e-waste. Deloitte has predicted that new smartphones purchased in 2016 will go on to have three or more owners, with units still being actively used in 2020 and beyond. So, according to the International Data Corporation, approximately 222.6 million second-hand devices will be actively used in 2020, instead of being added to the e-waste epidemic.
Although having a refurbished model instead of a new one may only prolong the life of a smartphone, e-waste expert Elizabeth Jardim from Greenpeace’s branch in the US says that having a second-hand phone is “the first step to responsibly handling phones as it reduces the amount of energy and raw materials used to make a new one. We advise to keep the phones in use for longer,” she told News24. Further experts who spoke to The Star Online in the US believe that if a smartphone’s life was extended to five years instead of 12 to 24 months, the smartphone industry’s impact on global warming could be reduced by 30 percent, thanks to a saving in carbon dioxide expenditure.
So – regardless of the environmental factor – what’s the benefit of choosing second-hand?
The most immediate benefit is how much less it will cost you in both the short and the long term. According to the going price as of September 2018, you’ll be paying R7,999 upfront if you’re buying a new iPhone 6S. If you choose to sign a contract over 24 months, it’s a total of R619 per month (an eventual cost of R14,856).
When buying second-hand, you’ll be able to get the same phone for R3,000 – R4,000, depending on its condition. Furthermore, a contract will only cost you between R300-400 per month.
An inadvertent advantage of choosing a cheaper second-hand phone is that you’ll be paying less for more storage. Cellphone companies like Vodacom, Telkom and Cell C add an extra R100 or more every month to your contract just to upgrade you from a 32G to a 64G. Thanks to how Apple and Samsung are advancing the technology, smartphones are made to last and can run for years allowing second-hand resellers to offer up to 12-month warranties on used phones.
In all honestly, unless you’re getting paid to be an Apple or Samsung ambassador who advertises a lifestyle with the latest model, you don’t really need the smartest smartphone. Most of their models offer all of the features one would like in a smartphone – internet access, a good camera, a fair amount of storage, and the ability to download social media apps.
Swimming against the current
In 1954, long before smartphones were even a thought, American industrial designer Brooke Stevens pushed manufacturers to create products that would deliberately become obsolete or undesirable long before it breaks by releasing upgraded versions of the product every year. “A little newer, a little better, and a little sooner than necessary,” he said.
Fast forward to 2018, and it’s this philosophy, adopted by smartphone companies around the world, that’s fueling the addiction to have the smartest smartphone at any given time. As the title suggests, it is up to us to swim against this current by choosing a refurbished, second-hand smartphone or simply keeping our current phone for a longer period of time.