A mobile phone is a popular thing for a person to have… almost as popular as a new mobile phone.  So what happens to the old phones when you get a new one?  Commissioner Biju Nair makes a compelling case for the re-use of these devices that advances GIIC’s objective to bridge the digital divide…

A Value Proposition for Everyone

by | Sep 20, 2016 | Insight |

Smartphones have become an indispensable electronic device in today’s fast paced world. Last year more than 1.4 billion smartphones were sold worldwide, many as upgrades for existing smartphone users. In the U.S. alone, over 150 million smartphones are discarded by consumers each year, and many of them end up in landfills, polluting anywhere between 1,200 to almost 5,000 gallons of ground water per device. Incidents such as the polluted water supply in Flint, MI., have brought to light the negative results that this can lead to.

What if we could find a way to reduce this form of pollution and generate revenue, while at the same time benefiting humanity?  This is exactly what is now being done – by repurposing old devices.

It begins with mobile operators, original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) and retailers offering buy-back programs, incenting consumers to trade-in or turn-in their older devices. These devices are then wiped clean, tested, and graded. The working devices are used to fulfill insurance and warranty obligations for existing customers, or are shipped to emerging markets. More than 64% of the world has no access to the Internet, and one way to lower the barrier of entry is get access is through mobile devices. Charitable activities by companies like Facebook / Internet.Org are focused on bringing Internet access to the billions of “unconnected” people, and these repurposed devices are just the vehicle to accomplish that.

Non-working devices or devices that are too old are responsibly recycled to extract precious metals and other resources. Apple disclosed that last year it extracted $40M worth of gold from recycled mobile phones and computers. Would it surprise you to know that there is more gold in one pound of electronics than there is in one pound of gold ore?  It really isn’t an exaggeration to say that recycling old phones is a “goldmine”.

What if we could find a way to reduce this form of pollution and generate revenue, while at the same time benefiting humanity?

People in the developed world are concerned with the environment, but often don’t see how their actions can directly impact it.   A recycling business model focuses on creating a win-win-win for everyone in the ecosystem. Consumers win because they are compensated for their used devices when upgrading to new phones. Carriers, retailers and OEMs win because these devices provide tangible benefits for them in the form of lower cost of meeting insurance obligations or cash from extracted precious metals. Consumers in the emerging world win, as they get access to used, high-end devices like iPhones and Samsung Galaxys for a fraction of the price, giving them access to the interconnected world and its inherent benefits.  Ultimately, everyone wins as the environment improves with fewer of these devices ending up in landfills.

One of the obstacles is simply a lack of awareness of the value of a used device. Retailers can make a big difference here by increasing awareness. Consumers can now weigh the option of, say, passing the phone on as a toy to a toddler, or getting a discount or cash.  

Another obstacle to recycling is when countries impose “anti-dumping” policies for used electronics. At first glance, the motivation is understandable, as it is intended to protect indigenous manufacturing from competitively priced alternatives with many features.  Countries should examine the actual effectiveness of these laws and the impact on their citizens, as many used phones still make it into these countries via black or other markets, and their citizens end up paying a higher price and have a less trustworthy product.  Beyond that, the mobile phone repurposing industry can actually create job opportunities across the eco-system for operators, retailers, logistics providers, repair service providers, refurbishers and recyclers.  Additional opportunities are also created in the form of “urban” mining, where precious metals can be extracted from devices that are no longer usable.  Taken together, these various facets of mobile phone recycling can bring many benefits to the countries involved and their citizens. 

Recycling is a smart choice in many areas of our lives and economy.  The smartphone recycling opportunity is as smart as any of these. Join us in improving the environment while bringing the benefits of the Internet to more of the world community by recycling and repurposing used mobile devices. 


Commissioner Biju Nair is the CEO of HYLA Mobile, whose mission is to extend the life of mobile devices.  Biju is a member of the Economic Club of Chicago and on the Leadership Council of CTOA’s Wireless Internet Caucus… read more