Reduce, Reuse, Recycle: The Many Lives of Mobile Phones

Posted by CorinneRamey on Apr 22, 2008

In the United States, a used mobile phone is likely to end up in the trash can, or more likely, in the back of a desk drawer for several years, collecting dust. But in the rest of the world, this just isn't the case. Mobile phones -- or even parts of mobile phones -- are reused, recycled, and refurbished.

Jan Chipchase, a phone anthropologist for Nokia, has seen the way that old mobile phones transform into new ones while traveling for Nokia around the world. According to this CNET News article, Chipchase and his team (MobileActive wrote about Younghee Jung, an anthropologist who works with Chipchase, here) have found that refurbishing phones is a booming market in developing countries, with small businesses springing up that sell phone parts, repair manuals, and pirated versions of the newest software.

Chipchase's team found that in countries from Ghana to Mongolia people have learned to repair mobile phones in innovative ways: "there's no limit to how cell phones can be modified and how their life spans can be extended. And breathing new life into phones usually doesn't take a complex set of tools. In most cases, handsets can be reborn with the help of just a screwdriver and a toothbrush sprayed with alcohol to clean the contact heads."

In India, for example, there is a "Mobile Repairing Institute" that offers diplomas, and in other countries technicians commonly install different languages, unlock software, switch frequency bands, and install pirated versions of the newest software onto older, recycled phones. "The informal repair culture...makes mobile phones something more affordable to price-sensitive customers, increasing the lifetime of products while lowering the environmental-impact risks," said Chipchase. "If they want to stay in business, they've got to listen to what the customer wants."

Throughout the world, e-waste is a tremendous concern, with mobile phones being one of the primary culprits. Mobile phones are the most valuable kind of e-waste, according to this New York Times article, and each phone contains about one U.S. dollar's worth of gold and other precious metals. According to the CTIA, 80% of people in the United States own mobile phones and each mobile phone is used for an average of 12 months. This means a huge number of mobile phones are ending up in desk drawers, landfills, and contributing to e-waste pollution.

Unlike in the United States, where phones are often sold at heavily discounted rates as part of a one or two year service contract, phones in developing countries can be prohibitively expensive in relation to people's income. Recycling mobile phones isn't something that shops like India's Mobile Repair Institute do because it's good for the earth -- although that's clearly a biproduct -- they do it because fixing phones is a way to make them affordable. According to Umicore, a Belgian company that extracts e-waste from metals and recycles it, Umicore and its competitors received about 1 percent of phones that were discarded in 2006 around the world.

Photo credit to Gaetan Lee.

A great insight into how

A great insight into how wasteful Americans are being - I'm not sure about the rest of Europe but certainly in the UK recently there have been big steps towards recycling mobile phones. For example Cash for Mobile schemes operate that buy back old phones that insurance companies are still insuring. These are then provided as replacements instead of new ones.

I'm pretty sure that EU regulations force the same insurance companies to ensure that the broken handsets and the handsets that are too old are recycled properly.


HI Brian, 


enable community ( is the only not-for-profit organisation that I know of that is receiving old mobile phones specifically to provide to micro-entrepreneur's.  They are partnered with Vodafone in New Zealand.






Is there any organization that phones can be collected for, or that will buy used phones in order to resell in developing countries?

p.s. dibs on that idea if no one else has had it haha

Brian Ennis (

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