Used phone market takes off but far from green

Emmanuelle Michel –

Thanks to a fast-growing secondhand market, smartphones are increasingly being re-used but large-scale handset recycling is not happening as the industry struggles to go green.
Thrown in the thrash or left abandoned in a drawer, the fate of mobile phones — which consumers replace on average every two years — is starting to change amid growing criticism over their environmental impact.
“People love technology — the upgrades, the unboxing, the new features,” the EEB network of environmental groups in Europe said in a statement as the world’s largest mobile phone fair opened this week in Barcelona.
“But there’s a dirty side to our tech obsession: trainloads of e-waste trundling out of our cities and towards hellish waste dumps in Africa and Asia.”
According to a recent UN report, small devices like smartphones represented nine per cent of all e-waste in the world in 2016, up from seven per cent in 2014.
But things in the mobile sector are slowly starting to change.
“There is very strong growth in the reused phone market,” said Bertrand Grau, a technology analyst at Deloitte, which forecasts sales of second hand mobile phones will expand by 20 per cent a year between 2015 and 2020.
The surge in sales of secondhand phones is being fuelled in part by consumers, who are reluctant to dish out more money for new models that offer little innovation.
As such, mobile brands and operators are increasingly offering phone exchange programmes. Consumers can turn in their old model to get a discount on a new one or cash.
“Today this has become almost a mainstream practice around the world,” said Biju Nair, the head of Hyla, a Texas-based firm which helps the industry collect and repurpose used phones.
Hyla and other such firms provide operators with software that checks the state of the phone, makes sure it is not stolen, erases all the data on the device and makes it reusable.
French start-up Volpy, meanwhile, has created an app that buys phones directly from consumers and sends a courier to fetch the handset.
The system is still in its infancy. Only 7 to 15 per cent of smartphones sold in France, and 20 to 25 per cent of those sold in North America, are reconditioned.
But “it’s a first step to responsibly handling phones,” said Elizabeth Jardim, an e-waste specialist with the US branch of Greenpeace. —AFP