Mobile Phones

Unlocked Cell Phones May Be More Eco-Friendly

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Because using an unlocked phone keeps you from having to buy a new phone every two years, you're less likely to toss it out and contribute to the global issue of e-waste.

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Why It's Important

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.

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What It Means For You

You might be thinking, So what? I'm just supposed to keep my phone for years while everyone around me is buying the latest and greatest gadgets? It turns out that this isn't necessarily the sacrifice you might think. As phone technology gets more advanced, the improvement from one model to the next gets smaller. Meanwhile, a new model's novel, flashy features are often half-baked and glitchy for the first year or more.

Before you feel the need to buy a new phone, ask yourself: are you buying one because your old model no longer works for you, or are you just keeping up with the Joneses? As Scientific American warns, "You are perfectly capable of resisting the lure of a new model if the previous one is still fast enough for the software you want to use; utility, not the insecurity of being left behind, should drive your decisions."

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Key Facts In This Video

  1. The world's e-waste will probably grow to 72 million tons by 2017. 00:46

  2. In many U.S. states, it's illegal to discard your used electronics. 01:40

  3. Consumers can often sell their used electronics online, return them to the manufacturer, or recycle them at stores such as Best Buy and Whole Foods. 02:22

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