Handset hoarding: old habits die hard

16 Sep 2013

As featured on TM Forum's the Insider blog.

It was interesting to read that Australia, with a population of just over 23 million people has 23 million old, unused mobile phones stashed away in cupboards, drawers, attics and cellars. Surely we have to ask – why?

What is about our old mobile phones that begs us to keep them in the first place. Technology in this sector has moved so fast that any phone over two years old feels and works like something from the stone age. Not to mention that those old NiCad batteries, that have a definitive shelf life, are probably dead and gone anyway.

Is it the original high cost of ownership that makes them worth keeping? Are they kept as hand-me-downs (hardly likely as kids today always seem to have the latest models in hand)? Is it the hope that one day they will be worth a small fortune as antiques or is it the need to have a backup just in case the latest manifestation is lost, broken or dies an early death?

I’m sure we all have one of these monsters lurking somewhere around the house, but what’s your excuse? One PhD quoted in the original story said that “people found it hard to throw out their phones if they had upgraded to a newer model and old device was still working.” Yet the hoarding continues despite the best efforts of the Australia’s Mobile Muster program that arranges drop points, collection and recycling of old phones nationwide.

Many working units can be re-utilized in developing markets, others can be broken down to extract any valuable component parts including plastic, gold, copper, lithium and cobalt that are recycled in countries such as Singapore, North Korea and Australia. Yet many just end up languishing in drawers.

It was enlightening to receive a press release from TMNG in the USA touting that Sprint had achieved Guinness World Record status setting a new record for the number of cellular phones recycled in one week. At 103,582 cell phones, Sprint more than doubled the previous record.

Wow! If the USA has the same phone hoarding problem as Australia and its 300 million population has one phone each to dispose of then it will certainly have to up the collection rate substantially. Let’s not forget that with 200 million odd new phones sold there each year those old phone numbers are quickly multiplying.

Companies like Green Citizen in the San Francisco Bay Area are doing their best by refurbishing 30 cell phones a day to put back into customers' hands. Others are broken down to circuit boards and batteries that are shipped out to certified partners that either turn the parts into some other electronic gizmo, or smelt metals and other materials. In addition, certified e-waste recycling centers deal with noxious chemicals in ways that, happily, avoid poisoning people.

Sadly, many end up in poorer countries to be broken down by hand by workers that risk chemical poisoning and where unusable parts are simply discarded on waste dumps adding to ground and water pollution.

So who should take responsibility for the recovery and correct recycling and disposal of all these devices? Should it be the device makers (like the old days of soda bottle deposits and collections), the mobile network operators and resellers that distribute them, or the individuals that buy them?

If nobody wants to take up the challenge we will be paving the way for governments and regulators to get involved, and we all know what that will mean.

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