Reusing smartphones and the circular economy ♻️


December 5, 2019

Written By

A model of smartphone reuse is what contributes to a circular economy.

Electronic waste is a modern crisis. Globally, we create around 50 million tonnes each year, and our cast off laptops, kettles and phones are turning parts of the planet into e-waste dumps. We need to find a solution, fast.

Only 20% of that waste is formally recycled and if you recycle your tech, you can feel a bit smug... but only a bit. It’s better than sneaking your old TV into next door’s skip in the dead of night, but recycling isn’t the Get Out of Apocalypse Free card we tend to think, and it’s only one way to repurpose your old gadgets.

At Raylo, we prioritise reuse, a key component in what’s known as a circular economy. The circular economy concept takes a much more holistic, radical approach to sustainability and it could change the way we think about our phones and countless other products we use every day. 

According to the UN’s Joyce Msuya, “a circular economy brings tremendous environmental and economic benefits for us all”. But how do we go about embracing this potentially planet-saving model?

Circular economy: explained

From manufacturer to consumer, we’ve been living a linear, ‘take, make, waste’ lifestyle – raiding resources, making products, throwing them away and going back to the start. A circular economy turns this production line into a loop, looking at how we can perpetually reuse and recycle materials in a way that’s more sustainable for the planet.

As outlined by leading proponents the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, there are three key principles to making a circular economy work:

  1. Design out waste and pollution
    Ensure new products are designed with environmentally-friendly materials and practices built in from day one. 

  1. Keep products and materials in use
    Think share and repair, not stash and trash. Instead of creating demand for new products, extend the lifecycle of existing ones. And for single use items, make sure materials are recovered and reused.

  1. Regenerate natural systems
    Rather than just protecting the environment, actively improve it, returning nutrients to the soil and other ecosystems, enhancing natural resources. 

A circular economy proposes that we’d reduce our reliance on limited natural resources and also cut down on the amount of waste we produce. When you hang that next to a mental picture of a landfill full of laptops or a whale swallowing a water bottle, it looks pretty great, and more and more people are getting wise to the idea.

The likes of Timberland and Levi’s are already adopting these practices, so what’s the secret to making it work on a wider scale? It’s largely about changing ingrained attitudes to manufacturing, waste disposal and ownership.

Recycling vs Reuse

OK. You think recycling, you picture a smiley cartoon Earth, giving you a big thumbs up for being a great person. But as crazy as it sounds, the stuff we recycle in good faith can cause massive problems for the environment.

Countries including the UK, US and Japan ship huge volumes of plastic and electronic waste abroad, leaving developing nations like Malaysia, Ghana and Nigeria drowning in our garbage. It piles up in landfills, or worse, is disposed of unsafely, pumping toxic fumes into the atmosphere, water and food supply.

Adopting the ‘design out waste and pollution’ ethos would ensure we aren’t left with a high volume of harmful rubbish in the future, but the truth is, we’re consuming so much we can’t even recycle it anymore. Stripping a two-year-old product for parts shouldn’t be our go-to 'green’ option.

At Raylo we find new homes for old phones. The devices our subscribers return to us are recycled responsibly, only if they’re not fit to be reused by another owner somewhere in the world. Recycling’s still a good thing, but in a circular economy it’s a last resort. 

Owner vs user

When it comes to technology, ‘the circular economy largely replaces the concept of a consumer with that of a user’, The Ellen MacArthur Foundation. 

Since the birth of advertising, companies have fetishised the idea of ownership. “Buying this toaster will fix your life!”, they howl, (it didn’t and I want a refund). But in an increasingly digital landscape, there are certain products where ownership is decidedly out of style.

In music and video, streaming is our new god, with physical sales declining every year. Many of us find it easier not to own content, but can this attitude translate to mobile phones, household appliances and even clothes? H&M certainly think so, having just announced a trial of a rental service in Stockholm.

A selection of skirts and dresses made from sustainably sourced materials will be available to rent, and a repair service will be on hand to mend or upgrade your old favourites.

A major salute is in order, here, as rentals and subscriptions can play a huge part in a circular economy, especially when it comes to our phones. There are now more mobiles in the world than people. From the brick, to the flip, to the smartphone, we’ve clearly all bought a lot of phones (and now they’re ready to assume dominance).

At Raylo, our phone subscription service represents a marked switch from ownership to ‘usership’, a model which promotes greater flexibility and lower outlay for the customer.

In line with a circular economy, it also stops hardware piling up and ensures all devices or materials stay in circulation, creating less waste and reducing demand for the manufacture of new products. That iPhone 4 you’ve got under your bed is not part of the circular economy, sorry.

Most of us have grown up in a consumer culture, so how do we make the leap from owner to user? We need to drop our obsession with possession and focus on the reason we bought our phones in the first place.

It’s not owning the hardware that’s important, but the photos we take, the texts we send and the answers we Google to win an argument. Our gadgets are just tools to give us access to the platforms and features of the time.

As we look back over the last decade, it’s not the phones we’ll remember but the photos we took and the friends we made along the way. 

Industry vs the environment

It’s not just the users that need to change. If consumers are to adopt the idea of sharing stuff or using it for longer, it’s essential that manufacturers create longer lasting products that are easier to repair. The optimists among us might see this as being an obvious objective when creating a great product…

The cynics could be justified in being suspicious when their phone mysteriously packs up weeks before a new one comes out. Forcing people to buy more might be good for business, but it’s the enemy of sustainability! What’s more, when products do break, they are often prohibitively expensive to fix, then impossible to recycle.

Yes – we did say recycle. Not everything can be reused, of course, so for a circular economy to work it’s vital that products and packaging are built with recycling in mind. Raylo ships all phones with 100% compostable cases from Pela.

Made from plants, they’re the world’s first truly sustainable phone case and plenty of companies are harnessing new materials to replace plastic.

Ecovative create packaging from mushrooms and Saltwater Brewery are using barley and wheat remnants from their brewing process to create new six-pack rings, which are not only biodegradable and compostable but edible – if you fancy a snack. 

Single use coffee pods are one product that has come under fire for being made with materials that can’t easily be recycled. One of the biggest names in the biz, Nespresso, has got on the front foot and set up a scheme to turn it’s customers' old coffee pods into luxury pens.

“Nespresso capsules are recycled, not only recyclable”, says Nespresso Canada president Jean-Luc Valleix. This might sound like semantics, but it’s an important distinction. We’ve just heard where a lot of our ‘recyclables' actually end up. Nespresso are not just manufacturing recyclable products and hoping for the best, but taking responsibility for how these materials go back into the loop. 

A few things obviously need to change in order to go full circular economy, but it’s an idea that’s rapidly gaining traction and we can all start making smarter choices today: subscribe rather than buy, repair don’t replace. As well as the huge environmental impact, a circular economy is projected to save money, create new jobs and inspire innovation.

It all sounds quite futuristic, but perhaps it will come more naturally to us than we think. Our memories – or our mums – will tell us that, before disposable tech and fast fashion, renting appliances and fixing clothes wasn’t exactly uncommon. In a circular economy everything comes back around.