Few repair their cell phones or buy them used

Image: myScience
Image: myScience
Most people buy a new cell phone every three years, even though the old one still works or could be repaired. This is shown by a ZHAW study. What’s more, not even one in ten people living in Switzerland has bought their device used or had it repaired.

The production of digital devices requires a lot of energy and valuable raw materials. However, most people buy a new cell phone every three years, even though the old one still works or could be repaired. In addition, only 7 percent of the Swiss population has bought their device used or had it repaired. 86 percent have bought it new. This is shown by the ZHAW study "Lifesaving - extending service life", which was conducted as part of a research project on extending the service life of mobile devices funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation. An interdisciplinary research team from the ZHAW conducted a representative survey at the end of 2020 with around 1400 people, 1386 of whom owned a smartphone. The level of knowledge of the users, their behavior and motivation behind it were surveyed. The report also shows measures that can reduce the ecological footprint of smartphones.

Many replace their device without a compelling reason. Only 30 percent of respondents said their old device was beyond repair. By contrast, around a quarter said they wanted a better model (26 percent) or did not want to repair the old, defective device (23 percent). Twenty percent could no longer use important features because of software updates. "The problem lies with our consumer mentality," says Gregor Waller, head of the ZHAW study. Greater transparency regarding environmental impact could improve this behavior, believes the co-head of the media psychology department. "Sellers should have to show CO2 emissions of a new purchase alongside the price, ideally coupled with a comparison of a secondhand device." When making a purchase decision, the technical features of the appliance are the most important criterion (52 percent) - especially among younger people - followed by price and brand. While the technical advances in newer models were still striking a few years ago, this development has been much slower recently, however.

Because many people discard their cell phones prematurely, it would make sense to pass them on to others, if necessary after reconditioning or repair. This business model is cultivated by the company Revendo, for example, but providers such as Swisscom, Sunrise and Digitec now also have second-hand devices in their range. In addition, these are available on online platforms such as Ricardo or Tutti. However, of the people surveyed, only 7 percent have experience with a second-hand device. The majority of them (93 percent) were satisfied with it. The motivation for a second-hand device was the favorable price (87 percent) as well as environmental protection (82 percent).

Of those who had opted for a new device, two-thirds (64 percent) feared that a used one would last less long and would be inferior in quality (61 percent). Gregor Waller believes that sales outlets should be motivated to offer subscription contracts with second-hand phones. Longer warranties and software support of at least five years would also increase their attractiveness. He also sees financial incentives such as a tax on new purchases or discounts on used equipment as further options. If need be, there should also be political guidelines.

Repairs are also rare for mobile devices. Of those surveyed, only 7 percent have ever had their phone patched, although most are aware that this would be better for the environment (91 percent) and cost less money (53 percent). The most common defects were the display (42 percent) and the battery (32 percent). However, both parts are easily repairable or replaceable. One hurdle seems to be the effort involved: 39 percent consider repairs to be very complicated. To encourage repairs, the ZHAW researchers recommend better information about the environmental benefits and cost savings, as well as obliging sellers to provide easily accessible service.

True treasures rest in drawers

Another problem is disposal habits. Almost half (48 percent) keep their old equipment at home. If the devices were put back into circulation and refurbished, quite a few could be reused or the raw materials recovered. Two-thirds (66 percent) of respondents said they plan to keep the device as a backup in case of emergencies. However, half cited personal data as a reason for keeping it. Apparently, many still do not know that with newer devices (Apple from iOS 8, Android from version 10) the data is stored encrypted by default and is thus no longer accessible after resetting. ZHAW researcher Gregor Waller believes that this should be communicated more strongly. In addition, incentives are needed so that more devices are returned - either with a small fee or a discount on the new purchase.

According to the ZHAW study, little is also known about how to treat the phone so that it lasts longer. The charge level of lithium-ion batteries should not fall below 20 percent and not exceed 80 percent. It is best to charge it with a slow charging cable at a temperature between 15 and 35 degrees Celsius. In general, the device should not overheat. A protective film on the display and a cover on the phone will help prevent damage. "Manufacturers should include these simple items free of charge with the devices," says study leader Gregor Waller.

How to make your smartphone last longer

Every electronic device contains over 60 different chemical elements - including rare metals such as gold, indium and palladium. The mining of these materials has serious consequences for the environment and human health. The CO2 emissions during manufacture are also much greater than one would expect from such a small device: 50 to 90 percent of the climate-damaging emissions in the entire life cycle are attributable to the phases outside of use, mainly the production of the hardware. If we used our devices for longer than the average three years, the environmental damage could be reduced. The biggest weak points in smartphones are the battery and the display. With most newer devices, both can be replaced.

Here are some tips to extend the life:

  • A protective film on the display as well as a cover on the phone help to avoid damage.

  • Avoid overheating.

  • The optimum charging range for lithium-ion batteries is 50 percent. Therefore: If possible, do not let them fall below 20 percent and do not charge them above 80 percent - preferably at a temperature between 15 and 35 degrees Celsius.

  • Only use fast chargers when it’s really urgent.

Extending the life of mobile devices

Three ZHAW departments collaborated on the report "Lifesaving - extending service life": The Department of Media Psychology, the Institute for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, and the Institute for Environment and Natural Resources. It is part of the research project on extending the service life of mobile devices "Livesaving - A multiperspective approach for extending the service life of mobile internet-enabled devices", which ZHAW is conducting together with the Institute of Computer Science at the University of Zurich. The project is funded by the National Research Program "Sustainable Economy: resource-conserving, future-oriented, innovative" (NRP 73) of the Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF). The NRP 73 aims to develop scientific findings on a sustainable economy, more welfare and increased competitiveness of Switzerland as a business location.