When the U.S. Copyright Office made it illegal for people to unlock their own cell phones in 2012, it wasn't just a drag for consumers. It was also bad news for the environment. When you can't unlock a cell phone—meaning you don't own the phone outright—the life of that phone is limited. Customers must buy a new phone to switch carriers, and there's no way to sell an old phone for reuse. Because cell companies provide free or deeply discounted upgrades at the end of a customer's contract, there's also no incentive to keep the phone you have, which is why people keep their locked devices for an average of 18 months.
After that, they only have a few options. Only 11 percent of mobile devices are recycled, according to the EPA. The rest are either sent to landfills, where their toxic metals end up in the environment, or they sit unused in junk drawers. Luckily, unlocking cell phones became legal with the passage of a 2014 law, and unlocked phones are now widely available for purchase. Because customers pay for an unlocked phone outright rather than depending on a contract upgrade, they have more incentive to keep the phone as long as it's useful to them. And since that phone is not tied to any particular cellular carrier, it's easier for others to buy used once the original customer is done with it. This lengthens the life of the device, and may cut down on our growing e-waste problem.