Where Do Old Phones Go?

Worldwide, 1.5 billion phones are sold per year, and they aren’t limited to modern countries. In many areas, cell phones are more common than desktop computers. In 2018, a Gallup World Poll estimated that 83% of adults in developing economies had a smartphone. Unfortunately, the rise in smartphone usage has a downside – 100 million pounds of e-waste is generated every year.

Smartphones aren’t the only devices driving e-waste. The average European household has 72 electrical devices, but 11 are no longer in use or broken. However, the EPA estimates the average lifespan of a smartphone is 18 months, much shorter than a computer or television. Smartphones also require valuable metals like silver and gold, which are wasted when disposed of in landfills. Though some phones are safely reused or refurbished, others are shipped on an excursion around the world to become new devices or pollute the environment of developing countries. Ultimately, e-waste from smartphone use is a global problem with major environmental and humanitarian consequences.

Wasted Resources

Failure to reuse or recycle electronics is a cause of major waste. Every year, 11% of gold mined globally is lost to e-waste. Recovering lost gold requires more mining, which increases pollution further. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that for every one million cell phones, we can recover:

  • 75 pounds of gold
  • 772 pounds of silver
  • 35,000 pounds of copper
  • 33 pounds of palladium

However, refurbishing and recycling rates are low. According to Steve Manning, CEO of phone recycler ReCellular, “Only 10 percent-to-12 percent… make it to a recycling center, and numbers are even lower worldwide… closer to 9 or 10 percent.” 

"Microentrepreneurs" in Developing Countries

Unwanted e-waste is exported to developing nations through shady backchannels. Thousands of impoverished workers, known as “microentrepreneurs”, risk their health to make what little they can by extracting valuable metals from smartphones. Guiyu, China, is a major center for US e-waste, and has some of the highest cancer producing dioxins in the world. Electronics are processed crudely, as circuit boards are roasted over coals and computer chips are soaked in hydrochloric acid to release their gold. Workers often dump the less valuable parts into a river, destroying the habitat.

When electronics are burned, workers are exposed to toxic fumes like Cadmium, Mercury, Lithium, and Nickel. Many of the people involved in breaking down used electronics are children who sift through mountains of waste without proper safety gear.

An investigation by PBS tracked used American electronics to a rural area of Hong Kong. There, workers broke down television sets without wearing masks. When questioned, they reported that they did not know the chemicals they were exposed to were dangerous neurotoxins. Dangerous metals many are exposed to include:

  • Lead
  • Rhodium
  • Cadmium
  • Mercury
  • Chloride
  • Lithium
  • Nickel
  • Palladium
  • Silver

These metals pollute the earth and can take over 20 years to decompose. Additionally, potential health consequences for workers include:

  • Cancer
  • Birth Defects
  • Damage to the nervous system 
  • Damage to vital organs  

The most popular third world countries for e-waste include Ghana, India, China, Pakistan, and The Philippines.

Solutions

Reuse, Recycle, Resell

 

Electronics stores like Best Buy, Amazon, Apple, and Samsung all offer store credit or cash for trade-ins. Many carriers will offer up to $400 in credit for old phones, or a major discount on the latest model. Established options for online sales or recycling outlets include:

Carrier Buy-back programs

  • Amazon
  • Target
  • eBay
  • NextWorth
  • BuyMyTronics
  • Swappa
  • Gazelle
  • YouRenew
  • FlipSwap
  • Cash For Smartphones
  • Craigslist

Physical sales or recycling outlets

  • Costco
  • EcoATM
  • Best Buy
  • RadioShack

Charities

  • Hope Line Phones (Verizon)
  • Cell Phones for Soldiers
  • City drives – check with your city government
  • Local domestic violence centers
The Refurbishment Cycle

When you participate in a “buy-back” program with your carrier, or decide to sell your phone, there is a possibility that it will be refurbished and reused. An electronics recycling company called Green Citizen estimates that 21% of devices can be retooled, but the remaining 79% are unsalvageable. 

Before offering cash back, the smartphone buyer starts with an inspection of the device. Older phones may have damage that needs to be repaired, or parts that must be replaced before they can be resold. 

Companies consider the following:

  • Screen Condition – cracked or damaged
  • Body Damage – scratches and nicks
  • Buttons – some buttons might not work
  • Battery – it may not hold a full charge
  • Processor – the phone might not turn on

They then assign you a “grade” (e.g. “Fair” or “Good”) to determine how much money you will receive. After purchasing the phone, the company will fully wipe any data and perform a full reset to factory settings.

After repair, smartphones are often sent to lower income countries, where they are sold at a more affordable price. 70% of all refurbished iPhones go to China, Russia, and India. Meanwhile, most refurbished Samsung phones stay in the United States or go to South America. The Motorola Razr experienced a surprising resurgence in South America after its popularity waned in the states. Meanwhile, phones that stay in America can become emergency devices for the elderly or survivors of domestic abuse to dial 911.

 

Though reusing and repurposing phones sound promising, most devices are not salvageable. Furthermore,  the phones sent to developing nations have a limited lifespan.  

ByteNite

Alternative sources of income like ByteNite can reduce the problems associated with e-waste. Smartphone ownership is incredibly popular, even in low income countries. Rather than rework old electronics in dangerous conditions, “microentrepreneurs” can benefit from a safer and more sustainable income. Running ByteNite on an older device can net up to $100 USD per month, a veritable fortune in a developing country. 

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