Leveraging on cellphones decommissioning

The percentage of smartphones re-used varies from Country to Country with the highest in Singapore at 26%. In Italy only 7% are used second-hand. In blue the percentage of phones sold to specialised recycling companies or traded on the web, in green the percentage of cellphones returned to the selling point for trading with a new phone. Credit: DazeInfo

"decommissioning" is a strong word, used in relation to the management of nuclear waste, so I agree it looks like overshooting when associated with cellphones. 

Yet, as I mentioned in previous posts connected to the joint KICs project on eWaste management, the dangers deriving from a mismanagement of the cellphones end of life are huge, although they go unnoticed by most of us. They affect negatively the environment by polluting it with a number of poisonous substances and the lack of reuse of the cellphones themselves and of some of the rare materials they contain put a strain on our limited planet resources.

The data are discouraging: out of 100 phones that are no longer used 70-80 of them are still perfectly working and could be used somewhere, yet only 11 are actually reused or properly managed for component recycling in the US (and in Europe we are not very much better). Conversely, in India the figure reaches 95%. In a nutshell, well to do people do not care that much in reusing, they simply get something new (fancier) and live the old stuff in a drawer (or worse through it out in some landfill, which is anyhow the end of the story for those cellphones kept for a few years in a drawer).

Sure, we can try to increase people's awareness on the danger of mismanagement of cell phones but isn't there something we could do to be more effective in arising awareness?

Think about it. Every time you make a call with your cellphone the Operator knows what cellphone you are using (it reads its IMEI code as part of the call authentication - if your cellphone is stolen you can ask the Operator to block its use by providing its IMEI identity). Hence, by analysing history data, potentially an Operator could also know that you are no longer using a cellphone, more than that, it knows that the SIM that was previously associated to that cellphone is now being used by a new one. I am saying "potentially" because today no Operator is checking this information.

Suppose they start to do this. They would be able to send you a message (on the new phone...) with some reminder about the possibility of properly recycling the phone by handing it over to one of their "shop". They could even "entice" you with some bonus, and get a payback by the opportunity of selling you a new service as you'll visit their shop to drop the phone! I leave to marketeers to find out what value they can generate, but it is clear that by looking at data that an Operator already has it would be possible to prompt their clients to better management of their phones at the end of life.

They can also become proactive: by understanding your propensity to change a phone after a certain amount of time, they can propose you a good deal for returning that phone and getting a new one. At the same time they could become intermediary in the recycling by offering your returned phone to one of their client that is normally looking for second hand phones (and they can know that by tracking the IMEI number...).

It all boils down to big data and big data analytics... and this is where EIT Digital can help!

Author - Roberto Saracco

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