Smartphone recycling: UK buyers say let’s go round again

In the current economic crisis, like others in the past, key modes of operation for businesses emerge. First of all, budgets get cut: nice-to-haves and discretionary spend just disappear. Sounds rudimentary, but it happens – and across the board. Even in lines of business that have traditionally been used to procuring additional technology and services year on year. Even with comms technology.

And with comms technology, in particular smartphones, there’s almost a dirty little secret: nobody really needs to buy the latest and greatest product. The current generation of smartphones has been engineered with the longevity and functionality for time periods that well exceed traditional procurement cycles. Plus, the growing expertise in recycling procedures and processes means old tech will have more legs in it than ever and is likely to become an ever more attractive proposition.

The smartphone market has been going through a period of change over the past 12 months or so, with a study of the smartphone arena by research firm Omdia showing a general downward trend among major suppliers for the first half of 2023. Its Smartphone model market tracker – 2Q23 revealed ongoing issues in the mid to low end, yet the premium smartphone market was found to be steadily increasing due to ongoing demand for Apple’s premium models.

“Shipments of Android-based smartphones, which have a high portion of mid- to low-priced smartphones, will inevitably see another round of negative growth this year,” says Jusy Hong, senior research manager at Omdia. “On the other hand, Apple’s shipments of Pro and Pro Max will increase due to solid demand for premium models, but overall iPhone shipments this year will be similar to last year, or decrease slightly due to weak demand for standard and Plus models.”

But are enterprise customers likely to sign off on expensive premium replacement products? The latest Mobile trade-in and upgrade industry trends report from Assurant found a still buoyant trade-in market. A total of $872m was returned to US consumers through trade-in and upgrade programmes in the second quarter of 2023 – not very different to the first quarter’s $865m.

Drilling deeper, the report found that the top five traded devices were the iPhone 11, iPhone 12, iPhone XR, iPhone 12 Pro Max and iPhone 11 Pro Max, with 5G-capable devices making up 34% of the list, a rise from 29% in the previous quarter. iPhones reached their highest recorded trade-in value of $215 in the second quarter of 2023. And the age of devices at trade-in continues to rise, with the average age of all traded devices increasing by 6% to 3.56 years. The average age of iPhones increased by 4% to 3.55 years, while Android devices increased by 10% to 3.58 years.

With people keeping devices for longer and a strong trade-in market, there are also very good economic reasons for considering an older, refreshed phone.

One of these is the fact that a lot of UK phone customers are unknowingly making unnecessary payments towards a phone that’s already been paid off. Specifically, with bundled contracts that combine the cost of a phone and airtime in one bill, providers can continue to charge customers the same amount even after they’ve reached the end of their contract and paid off their phone. The literal and metaphorical bottom line is that customers are being charged for a phone they already own outright.

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To address this issue, Virgin Media O2 (VMO2) has launched an online calculator for consumers, designed to help them to check if they’ve overpaid for their smartphone – and potentially saving them hundreds of pounds a year. VMO2 estimates the issue is costing UK consumers as a whole as much as £530m every year.

Circular economy for comms

But while a communications service contract is a necessity, why shell out for the latest and greatest device in the first place? In business, older smartphones, especially those that have been refreshed, can still cut the mustard. And it is in the mustard capital of the UK that VMO2 has chosen to base its own refreshed device centre.

Operated by O2 Recycle plant is said to be one of the largest UK facilities offering aftersales technology services to help businesses dispose of their unwanted smartphones, tablets and accessories sustainably. Stating its reasons for setting up the centre in 2009, and why it was aiming to address the impact e-waste has on the environment, the company estimates around five billion phones were thrown away in 2022 and only 17.4% of e-waste was recycled.

Picture of used mobile phones ready for recycling at O2 Recycle in Norwich.

O2 Recycle is also one of the ways Virgin Media O2 is working to achieve its goal to support consumers to carry out 10 million “circular actions” by the end of 2025. This forms part of VMO2’s sustainability strategy, the Better Connections Plan, which aims to help people to live greener lives. The company says it helped consumers carry out 2.4 million circular actions in 2022, handling 250,000 devices that were saved from landfill, 92% of which were data wiped, refurbished and resold as “like new” products to customers.

“We’re committed to maybe 10 million circular units to come back through to us by 2025. In terms of where the devices come from, this scheme is open to any customer, any consumer, any business, so it’s not just O2 customers,” says Virgin Media O2’s senior manager for recycling, disposal and sustainability, Regina Mutonono. “It’s important to us to extend the lifespan of devices…we’re giving back to the consumer.”

In terms of entry points for the recycling process, customers can commence the service either online or from a high street store. Once the device has been assessed at the Norwich centre, they will be offered a value for the device. This is a hugely important step for O2 Recycle, according to Kevin Coleman, global vice-president – reverse logistics at Ingram Micro Lifecycle.

“This scheme is open to any customer, any consumer, any business, not just O2 customers. It’s important to us to extend the lifespan of devices”
Regina Mutonono, Virgin Media O2

“A device could be worth three or four hundred pounds. Customers often don’t realise the value of the devices they have,” he says. “The customer is offered a value up front and is asked simple questions [about] the condition of the device…We validate [customer information] and then process the device. At the point where we agree that the device is what the customer said it was, Ingram Micro will pay the customer directly on behalf of Virgin Media O2 and we will own the product from that point.”

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Giving old tech new life

Ingram Micro Lifecycle claims to be an industry leader in recycling and repairing used tech, refurbishing devices so they can be resold and given a second life. Devices are quality checked, refurbished via what are claimed to be “state-of-the-art” techniques, and are resold via O2 with a 12-month warranty.

In addition to being an Apple-certified organisation in the UK, Ingram Micro Lifecycle is also certified to repair and refurbish products from Samsung and other technology manufacturers, as it has access to official parts.

While the work is based predominantly around smartphones, Ingram also deals with wearables (such as smartwatches), tablets, AirPods and laptops. O2 Recycle largely handles consumer devices (77%), with the remainder coming from businesses. Smartphones currently account for more than 75% of all devices recycled, followed by tablets and wearables.

To date, 3.83 million devices – inclusive of tablets, wearables and AirPods – have gone through O2 Recycle. In 2022, the centre processed an average of 950 handsets per working day. Since its launch, O2 Recycle has paid out more than £320m to customers, £36m last year and £11m so far in 2023.

Alleviating consumer concerns

Yet while recycling is certainly gaining traction in the UK, VMO2 is aware of the challenges it faces in the area. While its research shows 83% of people agree that we all should be more concerned about the number of devices that are thrown away or left unused in drawers and cupboards, more than 40% of people have never bought a refurbished or second-hand phone.

Just under a third were put off from buying a refurbished phone as they did not believe it would last as long as a new one, while 54% said they would buy a refurbished phone if it were guaranteed to be as good as a brand-new one. In particular, 53% believed their phone would not be wiped properly if they recycled it, a key reason preventing them from recycling. Alleviating such fears is a key part of the recycling process at the Norwich facility.

Ingram has been operating the facility – split across two buildings – since 2000. The site has just under 800 employees across the two buildings, which are about the size of 20 tennis courts. Coleman points out how all of the infrastructure – power, conveyors, mezzanine lighting – has been specifically designed to industrialise the high-volume processing of high-tech devices.

Picture of used devices being repaired for recycling at O2 Recycle in Norwich.

In the lifecycle facility unit, the recycling process involves assessing devices for quality, wiping data, then sending them through to be recycled or resold as “like-new” second-hand products. On average, it takes eight hours for a device to be screened and quality checked, data wiped, repaired and refurbished, and then prepared for shipping.

Key parts of the process are screen repair and replacement and the removal of data. Data wiping is carried out at the beginning of the process, when the device is also checked for functional capabilities, such as whether the camera works. Data is deleted before any screen or major functional repairs take place. Coleman notes that some units requiring repair may have data on them from a technician taking a picture to test the camera, but even that is removed.

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“Either way, we don’t want any data on the device, no matter what it is or how harmless it is. Each device has a wipe to clear data and then update software,” he says. “We have specific software tools that the [device] manufacturers have given us to clear the data, like Apple Configurator. Unless you are an approved repair factory for Apple, nobody gets this. This is proper industrial [wiping] for the volume of the products that we [process]. It’s all about making sure the quality is right and making sure that content is off the device.”

Picture of used devices during the repaired and recycling process at O2 Recycle in Norwich.

And here, security is everything. The wiping process is designed to make sure devices cannot leave the building unless they have been flagged as officially cleaned according to the manufacturers’ standards. The official wiping software produces a log file which gives Ingram “absolute security”, insists Coleman. “It says [the device] was wiped, it’s clear, it’s passed. We know when we did it and who did it. We put that on our system and unless that log file is there, [the device] can’t go to the next recycling step.”

The next step looks at screen issues, and here Ingram decides whether the fix is cosmetic or functional. With the former, the repair simply involves repairing or replacing the glass screen, and not the OLED display underneath nor the electronics layer beneath that.

If a screen is intact and can be repaired rather than replaced, Ingram deploys a process called diamond substrate polishing to restore the glass to its former glory for resale. “Customer acceptance of refurbished devices is much higher than it was, but the quality [in appearance] really has to be there. This process allows us to do that without over-inflating time and cost and generating waste,” says Coleman.

For devices with more significant damage, Ingram’s facility has a dedicated room for deeper technical repairs. Working in a clean room with carefully measured air supply and temperature, skilled engineers take apart the damaged displays, using freezing techniques to safely remove damaged glass and hot wires to strip away OLED elements from the electronics underneath.

Picture of used devices being repaired for recycling at O2 Recycle in Norwich.

What comes as something of a surprise is just how many manual processes are involved in removing each individual element of a screen. Ingram plans to automate some of these manual procedures, targeting December 2023 for the installation of software-controlled robotic systems. There is recognition, though, that some things will still just have to be done by hand.

Sustainable from scratch

While this facility is making great strides in supporting the circular economy, changes are also taking place in the smartphone industry at large. Device manufacturers are engaging more with the issue and changing how they construct products, and then ultimately deconstruct and recycle what they make.

This also means…

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