Mobile phone contracts model due an upgrade, researchers claim

The 'frequent upgrades' business model for mobile phones is not fit for purpose if the industry is to deliver the transformational change needed to create a sustainable future, according to new research from the University of Surrey.

The research, published this week in the International Journal of Life Cycle Assessment, explored the lifespan of mobile devices from manufacture through to use and disposal; measuring the impact each stage has on the environment.

It concluded that the current model – in which frequent upgrades are encouraged and recycling schemes not actively pursued – is costing both the manufacturer and the environment. It supports other recent research from the Green Alliance which claimed that an increased focus on recycling and repairing consumer electronics could cut the carbon footprint of each device by up to half. 

No incentive

Lead author of the new research, Dr James Suckling, said: “There are an estimated 85 million unused phones in the UK. Each of these phones has been manufactured using precious metals such as gold, copper and silver which are costly to extract, both in cash-terms and environmental impact. These unused phones contain approximately four tonnes of gold, lost resource that would cost £110m and an equivalent of 84,000 tonnes of CO2 released into the atmosphere to replace. 

“The current business model of mobile contracts encourages consumers to upgrade frequently, regardless of whether their current phone is fit for purpose. Our study shows that there is little incentive for people to recycle old mobiles. Unfortunately this leaves many unused devices lingering in drawers, until they are eventually thrown away and end up in landfill. This isn’t a trend that can continue if we are to have the mobile lifestyle we want, while still ensuring a sustainable future.”

The researchers propose an alternative business model, which has already been proven in the PC industry: a ‘cloud-based product service system’ where the heavy processing and memory storage of devices are moved to a remote server online. Without the need for complex processing, smartphones could become less complex, designed to last longer and require less precious resources to make, the study suggests.

And this model could be combined with a ‘take-back’ clause in mobile phone contracts, which would to return it to the manufacturer at the end of the service contract. The researchers say this would be “instrumental in ensuring that the resources tied up in mobile phones are retained and not lost to landfill”.

O2 response

edie put the research to Britain’s second-largest mobile operator, O2, which was recently applauded for being ‘streets ahead of competitors on e-waste recycling’. The firm’s head of sustainability Bill Eyres said he was “excited to review the University of Surrey’s research and their ideas”, but insisted O2 is already driving a number of succesful recycling initiatives.

“Over the past five years, we have made a number of changes to the lifecycle of mobile phones,” Eyres said. “We actively encourage customers and non-customers alike to recycle their unwanted devices through O2 Recycle, paying out over £100m directly to Recycle customers since our launch in 2009, and saving more than 1.4 million devices ending up as landfill. As a business, we’ve also explored leasing options to ensure guaranteed return of used handsets.

“As well as recycling, we were the first in the market to offer SIM-only tariffs to customers who want to keep their current device and our Refresh tariff automatically charges customers less once their phone has been paid off. This means our customers can keep their devices for longer and save money for doing so.

“We want to encourage a more sustainable attitude towards mobile phones with the world’s first Eco-Rating system, allowing customers to make a more informed choice on sustainable phones and also encouraging handset manufacturers to produce devices in a more environmentally friendly way.”

The University of Surrey research team is now looking at how to implement innovative new business models while convincing consumers that cloud services can be trusted to deliver services, and hold data privately and securely. “This will be one important focus for our continuing research, as will be understanding the wider impact of the mobile lifecycle on the environment and what impact new business models will have on this cycle,” added Dr Suckling.

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Luke Nicholls

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