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Wanted: new phone – but no e-waste footprint

I’m currently looking for a new mobile phone. Is it me or is it getting harder and harder to pick one as there are so many options? Especially as a new version comes out every few months with even better specs than before: smarter camera, longer lasting battery etc. It’s no wonder there are over 4.8 billion mobile phones in circulation today.

Something that annoys me about modern-day devices is that almost all chargers and accessories are made specifically for that brand. It’s even worse for phone cases which can’t keep up with the countless configurations of our beloved handhelds.

My trusty Samsung S9+ model has two cameras – this has doubled since I purchased it almost three years ago (in smart phone age that is ancient, I know). The earphone jack has also disappeared while buttons to regulate the volume, camera (quick activation) and voice assistant are constantly evolving.

In short, you won’t be able to reuse the phone case you already own. Granted, people typically want a fresh new colour and style for their replacement phone but it is driving an already sizeable waste stream. Let’s take a moment to process that the global phone accessory market is worth an estimated EUR 86 billion this year, according to analysts at Future Market Insights.

It made me wonder what can be done to make this growing sector more sustainable. Sure enough, there are companies offering phone case recycling services. An added challenge is that phone cases are made of a combination of rigid plastics, silicone, leather, metal and, for that extra polished look, wood.

For example, US-based TerraCycle has launched a phone case recycling scheme in partnership with PopSockets. It allows consumers to hand in cases of any brand and material, as well as case grips and holders, via a free-of-charge mail-in programme.

Meanwhile, Pela Case produces compostable phone cases, recycled via a mail-in programme when you upgrade to a new case. The company points out more than 1.5 billion phone cases are thrown away every year and that it can take up to 1 000 years for plastic to break down.

Another player trying to make a dent is the phone case brand CASETiFY. It collaborates with TerraCycle to offer free recycling via the zero waste box programme in stores. As a reward, consumers get a 15% discount coupon for a new CASETiFY case. A cool thing is that these are made from 50% recycled materials.

Of course, you can also choose to donate your old phone case to charity. A unique cause is Medic Mobile which equips health workers with devices, software and accessories as they provide care in the world’s hardest-to-reach communities. The concept of ‘public digital goods’ also benefits people in need who don’t obsess about which brand or model phone they’re using. They’re just glad to be connected. Isn’t that spirit of inclusivity a great way to expand the circular economy?

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