Jorge Marcos Fernández tries to make his cellphones last as long as possible. The last one he had was a Samsung, which he used for six years. “Opening Spotify [became] a pain. I used Google Maps and it lagged a lot. It was agony,” he recalls. When considering buying a new phone, this 27-year-old had two priorities: that it be easily repairable and that it be made from recyclable and sustainably-sourced materials. He opted for the Fairphone 4, a cellphone designed to be easily fixed by the user.
While Marcos Fernández managed to last six years with his previous device, the average lifespan of a smartphone is much lower. In Europe, for instance, it’s about three years, according to the European Environment Office (EEB). This figure is far less than the 25 years that a phone would need to last to offset its negative impact on the environment. The EEB highlights that extending the life of all smartphones in the European Union by just one year would save 2.1 million tons of carbon dioxide on an annual basis between now and 2030… “the equivalent of taking more than a million cars off the road.”
So why does a person, on average, change their smartphone every three years? One of the main reasons is “esthetic obsolescence, the constant search for something new,” explains Mário Barros, assistant professor at the Department of Architecture, Design and Media Technology at Aalborg University, in Denmark. “There’s a lot of marketing that promotes the new smartphones that have been launched on the market. This appeals to consumerism.”
This past September 12, Apple announced that the new iPhone 15 could be reserved from the 15th of the same month onwards… something that multiple users did, according to what they said on Twitter. Many sold their previous iPhones to be able to afford a new one. In fact, people who put their devices up for sale usually do so to “have a bigger budget to buy the latest model that has gone on sale.” A spokesperson for the Spanish secondhand sales platform MILANUNCIOS recalled that, after the launch of the iPhone 14 in 2022, “the supply of previous models increased compared to other months.”
Users also often replace phones due to hardware defects, a new mobile subscription provider, lack of software support and dissatisfaction with performance, adds Marina Proske, a researcher at Fraunhofer IZM, a German institute specializing in applied research. What fails most with cellphones is the battery, followed by the operating system and the screen, according to a 2020 study by the Organization of Consumers and Users (OCU).
Fixing your phone
“Smartphones break,” Barros shrugs. And fixing them is sometimes difficult, since “business models and supply chains are optimized to deliver new products [instead of repairing older ones].” The expert highlights, for example, that large manufacturers impose several limitations on independent repair services. “If repair capabilities were well-implemented and affordable, smartphones could last a decade,” he notes.
Bruno Martín de la Llama, 27, changed his last mobile phone — a Google Pixel 2 — because the battery only lasted half-an-hour. “I couldn’t find any place where they wanted to repair it. They told me that it was so old that it wasn’t worth it,” he recalls. His current phone is a second-hand Pixel 5. He bought it mainly for the camera. “I would like it to be more repairable, but I also wanted some features that I think a mobile phone like the Fairphone doesn’t offer me,” he admits.
Technology giants — such as Google, Apple and Samsung — have launched self-repair programs so that users can fix their devices at home with official tools. But most phones aren’t made to be easily repairable. Barros emphasizes that Apple and Samsung dominate the smartphone market and establish the practices that are followed by the competition. “Six or eight years ago, when Xiaomi was a smaller player, the batteries in its phones were removable and easily replaceable. Currently, though, most [of its models] have the battery glued to the back cover to be thinner, which makes them more difficult to repair,” he says.
Anna Jopp — Fairphone’s press officer — agrees that phones have generally become more difficult to repair over time, because “most of the parts are glued together.” “To remove or replace a broken part, you need special equipment… if it’s even possible to open the phone. And it’s almost impossible for a user to do this themselves,” she affirms. For this reason, Barros considers it essential that a network of independent workshops be able to operate in the market, “as happens when a car needs servicing and the customer can choose whether they want it to be inspected at the [dealership] or in another workshop.”
This is a change that would be welcomed by users looking to extend the life of their phones, such as Javier Maellas Ricote, a 27-year-old software engineer who has an iPhone 11. “Mobile phones are like computers,” he opines. “They’ve already reached the peak and are stagnant. Little by little they will improve their technologies, but I don’t think there will be a significant change in the next decade. So, if this phone lasts 10 years, I would be delighted!”
Cellphones that last a decade
Making more durable devices is one of Fairphone’s objectives. “This phone is like the old ones — you can remove the plastic cover,” Fernández explains, while opening his Fairphone and demonstrating how he can easily change the camera module, the speakers, the charging port and the battery.
The young man acknowledges that his phone is “a little thicker than normal” and that “for the same price ($560) you can get cell phones with better features.”
“If you care a lot about photography — or if you play a lot of video games — it may fall short for you,” he points out. But for him, it’s more than enough. “I hope it lasts at least five or six years, with the guarantee that I can repair it and that I can change the camera if [Fairphone] releases a better one.”
Apart from hardware, software is also essential. The Fairphone 5 — the latest model launched by the company — has a five-year warranty, as well as at least eight years of guaranteed software support. “Your phone may still work perfectly, but if it stops receiving software updates, there are applications — such as banking ones — that may stop working,” Jopp warns, who believes that Apple does a good job of offering software support for a long time (up to nine years in some models). “We would love to see this more and more on Android devices.”
If this were to occur, could phones then function properly for a decade? Barros believes so, “as [this is] the case with many laptops.” But he doesn’t think it will happen. “Smartphones have been around since 2007 — cellphones for even longer — and only recently has legislation begun to include such measures,” he sighs. However, he acknowledges, some policies — such as the repairability index in France, or the approval of the universal charger mandate in Europe — can “force manufacturers to change their practices.”
However, the expert criticizes that the legislation is taking hold very slowly and isn’t being applied more broadly. While the measures can extend the lifespan of devices, “they address only part of the problem.” For him, stricter legislation would have to take into account the extraction of materials that are used to manufacture mobile phones, as well as the end of the product’s life cycle, such as determining who is responsible for disposing of the smartphone and its parts. “If companies were held responsible — or even partially responsible — for this, they would focus their efforts on developing solutions. Otherwise, it’s not their problem,” he concludes.
The ecological footprint of smartphones
The production of a mobile phone requires significant energy and materials. “There are more than 40 different materials in a smartphone that are extracted under difficult and often dangerous conditions,” says Jopp, who highlights that only a small percentage of these valuable resources can be recovered via the recycling process. At the same time, “e-waste is the fastest growing waste stream on the planet. Of the 1.5 billion phones that are sold every year, only 20% of them are reused or recycled.” This is a huge problem, considering that, in 2019, 53.6 million tons of electronic waste were generated worldwide, according to the United Nations. It’s expected that, by 2030, the earth will be dealing with 74.7 million tons of electronic waste annually.
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