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Even top sellers are a recycling mystery

People have a volatile, even love-hate, relationship with technology and especially consumer gadgets. We want durable products that are well made but are also clamouring for sleek designs and cutting-edge features to make our lives easier and more fun. The constant product reshuffle is a real challenge for electronics recyclers because, after all, new tricks require new answers. 

The average life expectancy of people in developed countries is 80. And yet our phones last only two years, four if they’re lucky. Now that children barely in their teens are getting their first mobile phones, this means a person could own at least 20 handhelds in their lifetime.

I’m sure we’ve all read what’s inside our beloved smartphone but let me remind you: 25g of aluminium and 15g of copper, as well as 0.035g of gold, 0.35g of silver, 0.015g of palladium and about one-thousandth of a gram of platinum. These may sound amounts small per device but not if we’re talking about millions manufactured every year. 

Only 2/10

Looking at the recycling credentials of phones that were put on the market in the last two decades isn’t much cause for celebration. Certainly, older handhelds were sturdy and more straightforward but the downside is that newer ones are increasingly more complex. Batteries are glued in and components can’t be removed without causing irreversible damage. This is demonstrated by the low ‘reparability score’ awarded by technicians of the online community iFixit.

A total of 113 different mobile phones have been ranked to date. Only two scored a perfect 10, three got a nine, 11 got an eight. However, 30 models scored a humble six, with almost 40 units scoring four or lower. Market leader iPhone pocketed a six with its 12 Pro series, released last year.

The same goes for Google’s recent contributions to the world of smartphones. Popular models like the latest Samsung S series are near the bottom of the list. Even the company’s latest Galaxy Fold model got just a two. The only 10s awarded went the 2015 and 2019 versions of Fairphone, which were literally designed and made to be taken apart.

Build-a-phone?

So, yes, while there is progress it is inconsistent and happening at a crawling pace. Why is that? How come a 100% modular phone such as that invented by Fairphone never became mainstream? Surely people like to build their own cars, motorcycles and computers, so why isn’t there a growing market for highly customisable smartphones?

The answer may be simple. Perhaps consumers have been taught to want what they can have, not what makes sense. It wouldn’t surprise me. I doubt that big tech companies are eager to make products significantly more sustainable. If we can repair them, it hurts their bottom line. Looking at it from their market position, it’s more attractive to create and sell new products.

This reasoning puts the circular economy second every time. Any recycler will tell you that poor dismantling and repair successes translate to poor recycling results. As something of a Hail Mary, Apple has started creating its own phone sorting solutions to help boost recycling rates. The actual number of how many handhelds have been processed in-house is not available – they must be tiny in comparison to global sales.

Regardless, it would it be whole lot more helpful to design products to be recycling-friendly to begin with. Anything else is pandering. As a true optimist, though, I really hope that repair-friendly and fully recyclable phones will one day be the industry’s gold standard. It will take a lot of legislative muscle, government funding and, not least, a public awakening.

It’s like the famous saying: you are what you eat. Well, you are what you buy.

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