When should you upgrade your smartphone?

By Evan See

I’ve been using my sixth-generation iPhone SE since I purchased it in early 2016. It’s been the longest I’ve ever kept a phone – coming on three years this March. Previously, I’d upgraded my smartphones every two years when my Singtel contract ended. Unfortunately, this biannual cycle of buying a new phone happens to be quite common among Singaporeans.

With the frequency at which people buy new smartphones about every two years, the problem of e-waste also gets more and more worrying. This upgrade culture in modern society leads one to wonder – do we really need to get the latest smartphone every two years?

Upgrade culture can largely be seen as a product of people’s fear of missing out on the latest smartphone features, and the smartphone industry’s habit of pumping out several models at once every six months. Features like wireless charging, facial recognition and OLED screens have popped up in recent years, as industry heavyweights look to constantly match and one-up their competitors. It’s become very common to see smartphone technology change drastically over short periods, giving consumers the illusion that they have to constantly upgrade their handsets to “keep up”.

Telecommunications companies have capitalised on this by supplying mobile plans that encourage frequent upgrading, typically after a two year period. In the US, a survey done by Gallup revealed that 44% of Americans upgrade their smartphones as soon as their telco provider allows them to, whether their phone is still working well or not. Among technology enthusiasts, it’s also fairly common to to see people purchase a new smartphone every 6-9 months, either to own new models, or to keep up with the latest improvements in mobile technology.

But how long do smartphones actually last? According to Apple, their iOS devices are designed to last at least three years, while higher-end flagship phones like the Samsung Galaxy, Google Pixel or the HTC U Ultra are designed to last 4-6 years. This means that tons of phones are being thrown away every year when they could still have up to a year of workable usage left in them.

The E-Waste Issue

E-waste has become an issue of concern in recent years. Up to 70% of waste in landfills worldwide comprises of electronics, with up to 152 million mobile phones thrown away each year. Although almost 100% of e-waste is recyclable, only 15-20% of it actually gets recycled, according to the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). In 2014, Singapore was the second-largest generator of e-waste in the region, with 109,000 tonnes. That’s 19.5 kg per person, only behind Hong Kong’s 21.7 kg.

Compared to regular waste, e-waste is particularly harmful to the environment and human health, often leaking heavy metal particles like cadmium, lead, and mercury, while releasing liquid and aerial chemicals like PAHs (polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons), dioxins and furans into water bodies and the atmosphere.

The EPA noted that only 8% of mobile phones in the US were recycled in 2009. However, mobile phones tend to be highly recyclable and possess higher value beyond their regular shelf-life, with materials like copper, lead, zinc and even precious metals like gold and silver being recoverable from used mobile phones.

What Can We Do?

The National Environmental Agency (NEA) reported in 2018 that 6 in 10 Singaporeans are unsure of how to recycle electronic waste. And while most telco providers in Singapore allow users to trade-in used mobile phones for monetary incentives on new purchases, they often only accept fully functional devices without cosmetic damages. So what about the people that have elected to maximise the lifespan of their smartphones and have inevitably picked up a scratch or two along the way? This often encourages people to upgrade their smartphones before their old phones reach the untradeable stage – and also gives people an excuse to frequently purchase new mobile phones due to the lowered costs.

However, don’t throw your 5-year old iPhone 4 just because you don’t think anyone will want it. There are multiple methods in Singapore for you to do get rid of them in a sustainable fashion, with e-waste recycling bins around the country that guarantee that your used phone will be wiped of data, dismantled and recycled.

Starhub’s RENEW bins can be found at 418 locations around Singapore, while Singtel’s ReCYCLE bins can be found in selected Singtel Shop and Singtel Exclusive Retailer Outlets. Apple’s GiveBack programme allows you to trade-in devices in good condition for cash, while devices in poorer conditions will still be accepted for recycling. So if every phone you’ve ever owned is collecting dust in a drawer somewhere, why not do some Marie Kondo-ing and recycle them? It’ll certainly do both you and the earth some good.

Starhub’s RENEW Bins

But recycling isn’t just limited to smartphones, with several other programmes around the country accepting everything from washing machines to light bulbs. These can be found easily on the NEA’s website here, so there’s no excuse for you to dispose of e-waste irresponsibly! Do your part for the environment and recycle that smartphone, or better yet, don’t buy it in the first place just for the sake of staying trendy.