Across the U.S., there are more than 310 million smartphone users, and the penetration rate for smartphones has quickly increased from 54.29% to 91.14% in just 10 years. In the next five years, it’s expected that 97.53% of the U.S. population will be using smartphones.

Sometimes, people have business and personal smartphones. They may want to have both Android and iOS or a dedicated banking/bill-paying phone and another for chat and emails. In an Android Authority survey, 64% of readers admitted they have two or more phones, so it’s not unusual if you do.

All of these devices impact the environment in negative ways. Taking a circular economy approach is the best way to help protect natural resources and prevent unnecessary waste.

What Is a Circular Economy?

A circular economy is a model where items are produced, used, and recycled in a way that encourages the use and reuse of items for as long as possible. The goal is to keep items out of the waste stream and lower the consumption of raw materials. 

Instead of buying the latest smartphone each year, the goal of a circular economy is to use something as long as possible by making it easier to repair. Instead of having permanent batteries, you could replace the battery pack and keep using the phone. 

Another issue is the availability of guaranteed software updates. With a Google Pixel 5, Android and security updates are guaranteed until October 2023. If you have a Pixel 6 or later, you get five years of guaranteed updates. Apple offers about five years of guaranteed updates. Sometimes, the updates are provided longer than that, but it’s not a guarantee. In general.

  • ASUS – Two years of security patches
  • Motorola – Up to three years of security patches
  • Nokia – Up to three years of security patches
  • OnePlus – Five years of security patches
  • Samsung – Five years of security patches
  • TCL – Around two years of security patches
  • ZTE – No guarantees

If security patches run out in two years, people are more likely to replace that phone than they are one that lasts five or more years. Increasing these guarantees is an important part of a circular economy.

Encouraging consumers to trade in older devices to get discounts on new smartphones is a smart way to encourage a circular economy. Once a phone is broken or so outdated it’s no longer useful, it’s important to make it easy to recycle. When people cannot find an easy way to recycle, they’re more likely to throw them into a drawer or closet and forget about them.

You Can’t Lose Sight of Privacy and Data on Smartphones

When you do recycle, privacy and the data stored on a smartphone take precedence. You can’t just give away a smartphone as there can be personal information that’s not meant for others. This is where ITAD is essential. What is ITAD? It stands for “IT asset disposition.” 

ITAD is the practice of using and then reusing or repurposing electronic devices like smartphones. Instead of using your phone and throwing it out when you no longer need it, an ITAD professional wipes the data and determines if it should be repaired and sold as a refurbished model or recycled and have the plastic, metal, and glass components reused to make new goods.

Data destruction is important, and it’s the first step in a comprehensive, responsible ITAD process. You do not want to sell your used phone and have passwords, bank account numbers, and birthdays accessible to the next owner. It’s too risky.

The University of Hertfordshire bought 100 second-hand phones from eBay. Of those phones, just half had been factory reset, but the real concern was that 17% had personal information that was easily retrieved. That information included emails and text messages, intimate photos, browsing histories, bank account information, tax documents, and address books.

When you recycle your smartphone, make sure you’ve restored it to factory settings. That’s only one step. Choose a responsible e-recycler to make sure proper ITAD measures are taken. Companies that partner with ERI, such as Best Buy, ensure your phones are recycled properly and with your privacy in mind. After data is wiped, what happens with phone recycling?

Tales of Smartphone Recycling

Still not convinced that recycling and the circular economy are important? Here are a few stories that may help.

Recycled Phones Can Save a Life

Recycled smartphones can save a domestic violence survivor’s life. Often, the abuser in a domestic violence situation controls his or her victim by taking away the means of communication. That often means smashing the phone. It’s typically hard for the victim to purchase a new phone, so the only option is to go without it. 

Phones that are donated are refurbished and given to domestic violence survivors for free. They can hide them in a safe spot and use them if needed to call for help in an emergency. In one case, a woman from Canada was able to dial emergency services. Police tracked the phone’s location and arrived at the woman’s new apartment in time to stop her ex-husband from killing her.

The Importance of Recycled Cobalt

By 2025, Apple vows to only use recycled cobalt in its batteries and recycled rare-earth materials in its magnets, circuit boards, and soldering. This is an important part of recycling as it reduces the materials that are mined from the earth. Cobalt is worth a closer look as it’s mined mostly in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Cobalt mines formed where millions of trees were cut down and water was contaminated by the mining process. Cobalt is hazardous to a person’s health, yet the people mining cobalt may work while carrying their babies in packs for penny wages. If a worker brings their school-aged children to help mine, it can mean upwards of an extra dollar per day in wages. Experts call it modern-day slavery, and Apple is taking strides to end up.

Reducing the Need for Cloud Computing Hardware

A Ph.D. student at UC San Diego and her colleagues are studying the use of smartphone processors for cloud computing or business data centers. So far, the study shows that the processors in unwanted smartphones can run effectively for as long as six years in these settings. 

To do this, the researchers collect unused and unwanted smartphones and combine their processors to build small data centers. It takes up far less space in a rack, and they’re just as powerful as traditional data center equipment when they’re linked.

Partner With a Responsible ITAD Provider

Knowing where to recycle used smartphones is key. You can go to your local recycling facility, but you should do your homework first. Make sure the facility recycles with an ITAD provider who is both R2 and e-Stewards certified. If they cannot tell you, which is likely, recycle with an ERI partner like Best Buy, who offers boxes you can purchase and recycle up to six pounds of electronics.

You can also recycle with ERI by purchasing an electronics recycling box. These boxes cover postage and responsible, ethical recycling where nothing is sent overseas or tossed into a landfill. Reach out to ERI. Serialized electronics recycling boxes make it easy to pack up your electronics, arrange postage-paid secure shipping, and have your smartphone recycled responsibly.