The duration of most mobile phone contracts means most users upgrade their phones regularly, rather than sticking with one model until it either breaks or is inarguably obsolete. Recent statistics suggest most people get a new model every two years, using the end of their contract to catch up with technological developments that have happened in the meantime.
This means countries like the US and the UK create a constant stream of used phones. They’re expensive items, so they aren’t routinely thrown away, and if they were, ordinary waste disposal agencies would find it hard to deal with them as mobile devices contain a lot of valuable and potentially rare materials including cadmium and lead.
This means the vast pool of unused, forgotten mobile phones represents a huge resource for people with the knowledge and drive to make use of them.
Some are reclaimed by the providers that issued them in the first case: users can obtain a discount on their next handset by returning their previous one. Those that are still in good condition can be reissued as refurbished models, allowing the company to continue draw revenue from them, albeit with the users of refurbished models paying significantly less.
A number remain in the hands of their owners once the contract ends: they could be used as a backup in case of emergency, or as a ‘travel phone’, so the user doesn’t have to risk their newer, more expensive model on trips. Otherwise, old handsets may find themselves gifted to friends in need, or sold to second party re-sellers like CEX which are increasingly popular.
Surprisingly, a large number of used phones are finding their way to Africa. The continent has a hunger for mobile tech, as it can provide vital access to information and resources in otherwise isolated areas. Mobile banking has spread across the continent and revolutionised how people access money. Health services are now using mobile tech to advise people on the treatment of symptoms and remind people of the correct way to take complicated medication.
Even in poorer, rural communities, phones are a boon. They can be charged from solar panels and people who’ve moved away in search of greater opportunities can use secure online services to send mobile top up worldwide, so those back at home benefit and can use the credit to get online and access the services they need.