Saving resources and energy: the rise of the refurbished phone

With the consumption volume of phones increasing every year, the environmental costs of mobile phone mass production are becoming more clearly evident. From increased energy consumption to landfills being packed with old and broken phones, the general public is waking up to the damaging effects of mass technology consumption in general.

Conventional recycling processes aren’t as effective as they could be, which means that changing the product lifecycle itself is necessary to get the phone industry more in sync with the world around us. Using the circular economy through the process of refurbishing and reselling phones is the most efficient way today of doing this.

In this piece, we will talk about how refurbishing phones can extend the product life cycle, and in doing so, reduce the environmental damage that mobile phones cause.

Energy consumption of phone production

Resource mining, transportation (of both the resources and finished product) and manufacturing are the three main uses of energy for phone production. What isn’t commonly known is that the vast majority of minerals used in phones are imported from countries with poor environmental practices as well as poor working conditions.

For example, more than 50% of the world’s cobalt (a resource used for rechargeable batteries in phones) is mined in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Whilst there are efforts to reduce the use of child labour in mining, there is still that potential and it can happen.

Other metals commonly used in phones include copper, tellurium and manganese, all of which are needed for other technologies to make the earth a safer and green place; think of solar panels as a source of renewable energy.

When it comes to the energy use of transporting resources from the DRC, there is clearly a vast distance to cover to arrive at the factories manufacturing the phones; iPhones are predominantly made in Shenzhen, a city in China.

Plastic and glass used in phones

Moving away from metals used in the inner workings of phones, plastic and glass account for the outer casings and screens respectively.

Conventional plastic (non-biodegradable, fossil fuel-based) is produced from oil and natural gas that has had to be extracted. A Common group of plastics used in phones are polycarbonates. Similar to other conventional plastics, polycarbonates have high carbon footprints due to the nature of carbon extraction. The energy used to extract oil and natural gas is also very high – it is estimated that in 2019, the UK alone produced 2.5 million metric tons of CO2 from plastic production.

Conventional plastic is also not biodegradable, meaning that a) in landfill, it will remain for potentially hundreds of years depending on sunlight and other conditions and b) in the natural environment it will break into microscopic fragments (commonly known as microplastics), where it will enter the marine food chain, as well as continuing to release the trapped carbon it contains.

Glass is biodegradable, but the energy used in producing it (not taking into account the energy rates of recycling and all other processes after point of sale) is actually higher than conventional plastic.

How do refurbished phones reduce environmental damage?

By extending the product life cycle of a phone, the rate of phones entering landfill is reduced. Landfill usage is a huge problem in today’s world, and will only continue to get worse. Finding more sustainable methods of decreasing waste ending up in landfill will be key to the success of environmentally succinct ways of living.

Through the decreased sales of new phones, through their reduced demand as a result of more people buying refurbished, the volume of raw materials used in phone production is reduced. This also means a decrease in energy used to produce a new phone.

Indirectly, turning to the circular economy will increase investment in circular processes overall. As the public ‘speaks with their wallet’, companies producing new phones will have to show clear evidence of environmental accountability and system processes.

As with every decision as a consumer, make sure to do your research. We have so much power to change the world through our purchasing decisions, and it’s a privilege that we shouldn’t take lightly. If you would like any additional information on refurbished phones, you can ask the team at WeSellTek who will be happy to help.

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