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BLOG: Guilty pleasure: The dark side of smartphone upgrades

Robert L. Mitchell | Jan. 2, 2014
Manufacturers should make it easier to repair used phones to help prolong their lifetimes, said Barbara Kyle, national coordinator at the Electronics TakeBack Coalition.

And now, thanks to Verizon Wireless' Edge program, you can pay nothing up front -- it's free! -- if you agree to add $20 to $30 to your regular monthly payment. Doing so also entitles you to throw away your old phone and upgrade to a new one every 12 months. With no down payment, and the entire cost of that new phone buried in your contract, you might as well upgrade, right?

Encouraging people to throw away perfectly serviceable mobile phones every year rather than every two-- essentially doubling the rate at which phones are discarded -- is certainly not a green way of doing business. The guilty pleasure of getting a new phone every year - or even every two -  is a huge problem that's getting bigger, not smaller.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, we threw away 152 million phones in the U.S. in 2010 (the latest year for which statistics are available). Just 11%, or 17.4 million of those, were recycled. The other 89% ended up in incinerators and landfills, where e-waste makes up nearly three quarters of the toxic heavy metals. Meanwhile, we're churning phones faster. According to Gartner 1.9 billion cell phones will be sold worldwide in 2014, up from 1.2 billion in 2010.

All of this doesn't sit well with Kyle. "When a carrier like Verizon encourages people to upgrade their phones every year, that carrier should only do so if the used phone is refurbishable, and if they will take responsibility for making sure that the used phone will be refurbished for a second lifetime. Otherwise, they are basically encouraging their customers to trash perfectly good phones," she says. (Verizon Wireless does offer a trade-in plan for qualifying models in good condition).

But recycling doesn't seem to be a major concern at my local Verizon Wireless Store. Recently, after upgrading my daughter's iPhone 4, the store associate did not mention any options for recycling it. The unit has a cracked screen and so had no trade-in value. When I asked what I should do with the old phone the person responded that it was off contract and so I could "do anything you want" with it. It would have been nice if they had offered to recycle it.

So there you have it. A laptop typically lasts about four years. But a smart phone, for which you may end up paying more over the contract term, is old news at two years. As if to emphasize that point, Google recently announced that the newest version of Android, Kit Kat, won't be available for my device. According to JR Raphael in his recent Computerworld blog, Android 4.4 upgrade list: Is your device getting KitKat?, "The company says the phone 'falls outside of the 18-month update window when Google and others traditionally update devices.'" I recently upgraded my five-year-old MacBook Pro to the latest version of OS X. But my Galaxy Nexus, a $650 mobile computin device that's barely two years old, has been abandoned by Google, which controls the Andoid OS. And even if Google did support the Nexus, it's unlikely that my carrier would provide the update to my locked phone.


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