Few things in this life are certain, but one of them is that your smartphone will one day perish.
No matter how much you spend or how carefully you care for it, phones just have a death day. When it does come, suspiciously coinciding with the end of your two-year contract, there’s little you can do. And really, it’s not a shock.
When you call customer service, they’re not surprised either. You enquire about repair, and you’re advised a new one will be more cost-effective. So you cave and buy a new version, meaning your old flame is headed for its own personal graveyard.
Perhaps you’ll trade it in somewhere for a tenner, or get it recycled. But most likely it nestles in your office cabinet, third drawer down, among your personal accumulated jungle of the obsolete. A new home between scart lead city and floppy disk forest.
Why phones don’t last
It’s a known fact that practically all our electricals don’t last as long as they used to - a result of irresponsible cost-cutting and barriers to repair. But the smartphone’s deteriorating lifespan in particular has made it the poster child of planned obsolescence.
There’s a few reasons why phones give up the ghost after just a couple of years. Firstly, several components in a phone just have a finite life. The lithium-ion battery, for one, will by nature wear out. Connection ports can get wrecked by a small piece of dirt, and the phone’s memory will eventually deteriorate after being repeatedly rewritten.
All these components could be made to last longer - but not without getting chunkier. As smartphone technology advances, manufacturers pack more and more into a very small space. Making a slim, light device means physically reducing every part to the bare minimum, reducing the margins of safety and making the device more delicate overall.
And now more than ever, our phones come under a huge amount of wear and tear. We take them absolutely everywhere, exposing them to heat, humidity and the more-than-occasional drop on the bathroom floor.
With all that in mind, it’s no surprise that phones are only made to last for a couple of years. It’s not that they’re designed to fail - they’re just not built to last. And because customers are eager to upgrade when the time comes, there’s a huge financial incentive to keep it that way.
How we can do better
But a phone’s short lifespan isn’t something inevitable that we should just accept - far from it. As we well know, the rate at which we consume tech has devastating environmental consequences, and consumers don’t really have any way of opting out.
Obsolescence isn’t a clear-cut issue. Manufacturers should take responsibility, but it's in the hands of governments and consumers to create change too. Here are some ways in which we can start to break the cycle.
Design for disassembly and repair
Increasingly, phone manufacturers are impeding phone repairs by glueing parts together or using proprietary screws. They then threaten to void your warranty if you take your phone apart, forcing you into an overpriced in-house repair. With a screen change costing hundreds of pounds, it’s no wonder people opt to upgrade early.
Making phones repairable is the first step to extending their lifespans. This means selling affordable spare parts, providing repair information and constructing phones for easy disassembly, with parts that screw or clip together.
Modular systems, wherein different parts of the phone can be changed out separately, are a brilliant way to futureproof devices. Not only are they easier to fix, it also means individual parts, such as the camera or processor, can be upgraded as technology improves.
Change consumer mindsets
All this is well and good, but if consumers decide they actually prefer getting a new phone every couple of years, then our rate of consumption isn’t going to slow down any time soon. Instead of waiting for an opportunity to upgrade, we as consumers need to start placing greater value on the devices we already have.
And when we do choose a new device, we should ask questions about its long-term prospects. Can the phone be easily repaired? Can repairs only take place in-house? How long is the warranty, and for how long will the manufacturer provide system updates?
Legislate against throwaway culture
As the Right to Repair movement gathers steam, we’re starting to see promising steps towards consumer empowerment written into legislation. A law has just come into effect in the EU and UK meaning that a wide range of consumer electronics will have to be repairable for 10 years or more.
France has also just launched a repairability index, meaning devices including smartphones and laptops will be labelled with a score based on how easy they are to fix. Sweden, too, has had tax breaks on repair services for all sorts of items since 2016.
Harnessing the waste stream
This year, humanity will spend half a trillion on mobile phones. 18 months from now the average American will already have purchased their next model. In the UK, there are an estimated 55 million handsets lying around unused in drawers.
E-waste is the world’s fastest-growing and most problematic waste stream. The pollutants our electronics contain have a disastrous environmental impact, often in developing countries where our waste is shipped to.
But refurbishment - and eventual recycling - of our old devices presents a huge opportunity. It's estimated that in the US alone, $60 million worth of gold and silver is thrown away yearly in the form of discarded mobile phones.
The Ellen Macarthur Foundation estimates that if phone collection rates hit 50% in Europe alone, savings for manufacturers could amount to USD 1 billion in materials and energy consumption. That’s not even including profits from resale. If phones were actually designed to be disassembled and repaired, this could be even greater.
There’s a healthy market for refurbished phones out there, but less than 20% of phones are ever given a second life or even recycled. As the world’s resources of rare-earth materials start to dwindle, mining our old devices isn’t just better for the environment - it makes economic sense.
For too long, consumers have been strong-armed into buying phones every two years, with little to incentivise repair. We want to see continued and lasting change in the lifespan of smartphones - and other electronics too.
It’s imperative that we, from consumers to governments, view our devices not as disposable, but as valuable commodities that should be kept in service for as long as possible.