Why upcycling tech is the future: your electronic devices can live long past their shelf life

Galaxy has launched a new programme that gives old gadgets a new lease of life, but more needs to be done. Rhodri Marsden explains

epa08876606 Discarded mobile phones are collected for recycling at the electronic waste recycling plant of Total Environmental Solutions (TES) in Bang Pa-in Industrial Estate, Ayutthaya province, Thailand, 03 July 2020 (issued 11 December 2020). Thailand is among the world's worst countries in terms of electric waste (e-waste) volume after it exceeded 621,000 metric tonnes in 2019. The amount of hazardous material found in e-waste has been increasing dramatically during the years. Thailand has announced a ban on the import of electronic waste. The country will also promote investment for waste disposal and recycling plants to properly operate on e-waste management.  EPA-EFE/RUNGROJ YONGRIT ATTENTION: This Image is part of a PHOTO SET

What happens to our old gadgets when we’ve finished using them? It’s a question that the world doesn’t spend a great deal of time thinking about.

In 2019, the United Nations measured a record level of electronic waste – more than 50 million metric tonnes of consumer electronics – which is predicted to double by 2030. Millions more tonnes are hoarded at home over a period of years, forgotten in boxes, cupboards or attics, serving no purpose. Their ultimate destiny is to be thrown away, too.

Gadgets disappear from everyday use much faster than they need to. An almost absurdly rapid upgrade cycle, particularly for smartphones, means that millions of them are turned off for the final time when they’re only a year or two old. While we may be recycling more plastic, glass and paper than ever before, electronics are much less of a priority, and repair or reuse has almost become a forgotten concept.

South Korean electronics major Samsung is now doing something about the latter, by encouraging users to upcycle devices that they've stopped using, but that still have something to offer.

The initiative, called Galaxy Upcycling at Home, was announced in January, but has now seen a trial launch in limited territories: the US, the UK and Korea. Its aim is to repurpose older Galaxy smartphones as Internet of Things (IoT) devices via a simple software update.

Download it, install it and your newly-optimised phone will take on a new lease of life as a sound and light sensor, with practical applications such as baby and pet monitors. More updates, features and territories are planned in the future.

An older Galaxy smartphone is converted to a light sensor to measure the brightness level of the room. Users can easily set the device to automatically turn on the lights or the TV through SmartThings if the room becomes darker than the preset standard of light. Courtesy Samsung

The idea that old smartphones can perform useful functions after the SIM has been removed is almost alien to us, despite them working perfectly well at the moment they're superseded. "I wouldn't blame the consumer for not thinking about this," says Tom Meades, co-founder of Gomi, a UK company that makes recycled tech products.

“Big tech’s business model has been planned obsolescence, where products are designed to have a limited shelf life. And then you buy another one.”

But the potential of abandoned devices is enormous. Even from a raw materials perspective, smartphones contain more than a dozen rare earth metals that lend themselves perfectly to what’s known as Urban Mining.

“Every mobile phone is basically a mini goldmine,” says Meades. “They can provide as much raw materials as an actual mine could.”

One study found that the concentration of gold in smartphones is 25 to 30 times higher than the richest natural deposits in the earth – and it's easier to get them out.

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We're trying to show that materials have value. And if you look at Generation Z, sustainable material is what we want to spend money on. We don't want to contribute to products that are going to destroy the planet

But e-waste recycling is still expensive. Companies such as Apple have initiated trade-in programmes for old iPhones with the eventual aim of making phones entirely of recycled material, but Samsung is reminding us that you don't have to break down old gadgets for them to be useful.

Electronics hobbyists didn't need the reminder; news of the initiative included tinkerers revealing uses for their old devices in comments sections, from TV remote controls to running music servers and keeping fish pond pumps active. Indeed, the complaint from hobbyists is that the initiative doesn't go far enough: it only supports relatively new smartphones (S, Note and Z series phones released after 2018 that run Android 9) and doesn't allow third-party operating systems to be installed, which could open them up to the myriad uses you see with a computer such as a Raspberry Pi. Yes, it's upcycling, but very much on Samsung's terms.

Daniel Davis, an electronics whiz who runs a popular YouTube channel called Tinkernut, makes the case for upcycling in his book, Upcycled Technology: Clever Projects You Can Do With Your Discarded Tech (this includes converting webcams into car reversing cameras and transforming CD-Rom drives into 3D printers).

“Upcycling is more than just slapping a new coat of paint on a night stand," he writes. “To let time and lack of interest steal these hidden treasures from us is like leaving a music box’s melody to be buried and forever lost in a landfill. As in life, there can be tremendous benefit in taking a second look at what’s considered worthless junk and embracing it instead of discarding it.”

Meades agrees. His company, which makes recycled plastic chargers and bluetooth speakers powered by old e-bike batteries, is on a mission to change people’s perception of waste. “Waste doesn't have to be what it was 10 years ago,” he says. “We’re trying to show that materials have value. And if you look at my generation, Generation Z, sustainable material is what we want to spend money on. We don't want to contribute to products that are going to destroy the planet.”

It may take time for older generations to catch up with this mindset. The world has a firmly established desire for the new and shiny, and the tech industry is geared towards impressing us with cutting-edge looks and functionality. But initiatives such as Samsung's and business models such as Gomi's show that repair and reuse aren't just possible, but desirable.

There are doubts as to how many people might actually dig out their old Galaxy phones to serve as a baby monitor, but this is part of a broader trend. Just over a year ago, the EU adopted a circular economy action plan, stating that electronics should be designed to last longer and be repairable and upgradeable, and Meades believes that this has to be the way forward. “That is the only future where big tech can be truly sustainable.”