Those Free Phone Promos Are Killing the Environment

Upgrade incentives are creating a glut of mobile phone e-waste, a new study finds.

(Photo: Peter Dazeley/Getty Images)

Jun 10, 2015· 4 MIN READ
Taylor Hill is an associate editor at TakePart covering environment and wildlife.

Most cell phone contracts are designed to push upgrades on customers rather than keep them content with their current model. The result is a growing global trash pile of discarded phones that is bad news for the environment, according to a new study out of the University of Surrey in England.

“All too often, the replaced phones are not returned for recycling and can end up in landfill, leading to a loss of valuable resource,” said lead author James Suckling.

Researchers looked at the life cycle of a mobile phone and found that in the U.K. alone, 85 million unused phones are sitting around, containing $170 million worth of gold among their internal parts.

That gold, along with other precious metals in the phones such as copper, silver, and cadmium, could be recovered and reused in new phones if the gadgets were properly recycled.

It goes something like this: When the latest, shiniest, slimmest cell phone model is revealed on whatever ad platform Apple, Samsung, or Google pipes into our lives, our consumerist instincts kick in.

We’ve got to have it. Even if the phone we own works fine.

The companies know that by dangling that coveted upgrade discount in front of us, they’ll entice us to enter into a new contract: another 12, 18, or 24 months of bondage to whatever cell phone service provider owns us, just to get that sexy new gadget.

Once we’ve got it, we throw the now-old phone in the junk drawer as a backup to the new phone…until yet another upgrade cycle spins around with even slicker models.

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Now that backup phone is too old to sell, and for most people, figuring out how to recycle the tech seems too hard: Only 8 percent of cell phones in the United States end up properly recycled.

So into the trash those old phones go, with all that gold and other precious metals, leading to more mining to supply those crucial materials. Mobile phones and other e-waste also contain toxic materials that can create hazardous waste problems in landfills not built to handle these substances.

Below is a breakdown of the cell phone problem—and possible solutions—according to Suckling and his fellow researchers.

Frequent upgrades offered by phone companies lead to quicker turnover of phones, even if they are not obsolete.

People upgrade their phones for different reasons—they may just want the latest model, or their old phone may be broken or lost. But the current structure of most mobile phone contracts increases the waste.

(Photos: Twitter)

“The issue applies to almost any contract in which the consumer is offered a free upgrade,” Suckling said. Instead of using their old working phone on a cheaper contract, they’ll get an upgrade to a new phone and pay more over the contract’s life.

There isn’t enough incentive to recycle phones, so people hold on to them.

(Photo: Tamara Staples/Getty Images)

In his research, Suckling found that even when consumers were given a prepaid envelope in which they could put a phone and drop into the nearest mailbox, it wasn’t enough to get them recycling.

“It becomes a question of value, not just money,” he said. The value of having a spare phone at the ready is greater than that of saving the environment, apparently, leading to a massive number of phones sitting unused in drawers.

“The value of recycling may be something intangible, such as benefit to the environment, but that is a low incentive at present,” Suckling said.

Phones are jamming up landfills.

(Photo: West Coast Surfer/Getty Images)

A lack of incentive to recycle means a lot of mobile phones end up in landfills. While e-waste makes up only 2 percent of the trash in American landfills, it’s creating 70 percent of the country’s overall toxic waste.

“The potentially toxic materials within leach out to the environment, and this represents a toxicity issue for the environment and the people who come into contact with it,” Suckling said.

Valuable materials in mobile phones (such as gold) need to be mined and processed.

Every year Americans dump phones filled with $60 million worth of gold and silver. In the U.K., four tons of gold are sitting in the country’s estimated 85 million unused phones.

For every 1 million cell phones that are recycled, 35,274 pounds of copper, 772 pounds of silver, 75 pounds of gold, and 33 pounds of palladium can be recovered. But we’re only recycling 8 percent of our phones.

(Photo: G. Brad Lewis/Getty Images)

“Both the excavating of precious metals and the manufacturing of those metals into phones is energy- and water-intensive,” Suckling said. “Without recycling, it increases the amount of greenhouse gases released during each part of the life of a phone.”

An extra 84,000 tons of carbon emissions is released into the atmosphere to replace those phones with newer models, the study found.

The solutions: Incentivize recycling, and use the cloud.

(Photo: Getty Images)

The study points to two solutions that can help with our cell phone glut.

First, mobile phone companies should be offering a “take-back clause” in their contracts that would encourage consumers to return phones to manufacturers for some form of compensation.

The second option would shift cell phone manufacturing itself. Compare your personal computer today with the one you used 10 years ago. It weighs quite a bit less than that old machine, even if you’re still using a desktop model. That’s partly because processing and memory storage components that used to weigh down computers have been moved to remote servers, which we access through cloud-based services.

If mobile phones went the same route, that would reduce the amount of heavy metals used in each phone.

But getting consumers to trust cloud-based storage on their phones will be a challenge, according to the study. “Our research team is now looking at how to implement such business models while convincing consumers that cloud services can be trusted to deliver services and hold data privately and securely,” Suckling said.