April 18, 2023

The issue of electronic waste has become a significant concern in recent years. Consumers purchase and discard electronic devices at an unprecedented rate, leading to several environmental impacts. For example, smartphones contain small amounts of precious and rare earth metals, the mining of which often produces more waste than the amount of material recovered. The climate impacts of gathering raw materials, and of manufacturing and shipping millions of phones each year, is also significant.

At the same time, smartphones can be extremely expensive. Some models top $1,500, a sizable investment for a device that many people would only use for two years. 

That’s where refurbishment of smartphones comes in. Consumers can get access to the latest and greatest smartphones for a fraction of the cost of buying new. And it extends the life of an otherwise unwanted phone without the additional environmental burden of manufacturing a new smartphone.  

Refurbished smartphones are big business, with more than 300 million sold each year. But research shows that less than half of consumers would consider a refurbished phone, in part because they can’t be sure of the quality of the device. 

A recent article in IEEE Access finds that, while smartphone recycling has sustainability benefits, a lack of clear standards leaves consumers at risk because refurbished phones may not be as reliable as new ones.  The article calls for clear and transparent standards that consumers can rely on to make informed decisions. 

“Today, if you purchase an item being sold as refurbished, you typically have no idea what you are getting,” said IEEE Senior Member Nicholas Napp. “The word ‘refurbished’ could mean that the device is ‘like new’, but was purchased by another consumer and returned. But refurbished could also mean that it has undergone some rudimentary servicing, from wiping the memory of a smartphone to replacing a missing manual or adapter.”

The article notes that the device manufacturers and third-party resellers are both involved in refurbishment of smartphones, but may have wildly different practices and benchmarks. While they may fix a central problem, they do not know the likelihood that other components will stop working. And they may use replacement parts that weren’t approved by the original manufacturer, or break seals meant to keep out moisture and dust.  

Clear standards could help consumers build confidence in refurbished electronics products.

“Standardization in engineering is fundamental to creating methods that we know will work,” said IEEE Member Tiago Nascimento. “These methods can allow scalability. In the case of consumer electronics refurbishment, the scalability can lead to less trash and more use of technology that it has not reached yet.”

Governments are also passing “right to repair” laws, the goal of which is to make it easier to repair electronic equipment of all stripes – from smartphones to farm equipment.  

“In practice, device designers weigh hundreds of considerations when creating new products, and reparability too often is far down the list,” said IEEE Senior Member Inderpreet Kaur. “Putting a publicly available service manual online by device designers will be a simpler way to improve ease of reparability.” 

Learn more: In a recent edition of IEEE Computer Magazine, IEEE 2023 President Elect Thomas Coughlin argues that IEEE standards for data sanitization help to encourage electronics recycling and refurbishment. 


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