Our electronic devices have a dirty secret: they contain metals, including cobalt and copper, demand for which is fueling a humanitarian crisis in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). As device lifetimes continue to shrink, experts are urging consumers to buy used or refurbished smartphones and laptops and to donate or sell old ones. And while consumers alone can’t address the tech industry’s social and environmental harms, these money-saving actions could help keep minerals in the ground and reduce the number of devices that pile up in landfills.
Cobalt and copper are crucial in our devices: cobalt helps stabilize rechargeable lithium-ion batteries and increases their energy density, and copper wiring is often used in computer chips. Both metals are mined heavily in the DRC, which is the world’s top cobalt producer and one of its leading copper producers.
Researchers say DRC mining practices constitute human trafficking because hundreds of thousands of people—including tens of thousands of children—work for a few dollars a day in harrowing conditions. Workers must use basic tools such as shovels and pickaxes in fragile tunnels that lack ventilation or in open-air pits that are prone to collapsing. Mining companies have also joined forces with the local military to burn down or bulldoze villages so they can expand operations in resource-rich areas, according to a report published this fall by Amnesty International. And cobalt is highly toxic, contaminating the air, land and water around mines.
But can we really prevent harm by buying used and selling our old gadgets? According to a report from two French governmental agencies, the answer is yes: buying one used phone avoids the need to extract around 180 pounds of raw materials. If everyone in the U.S. kept their phone for an extra year on average, that would cut the manufacturing demand by more than 40 million pounds of raw materials per day.
“Anything we do that keeps devices in use longer … reduces the amount of minerals that are needed,” says Lucas Gutterman, director of the nonprofit U.S. Public Interest Research Group’s (PIRG’s) Designed to Last campaign against e-waste and planned obsolescence.
To accommodate our electric vehicle- and smartphone-dominated future, demand for metals such as copper and cobalt will skyrocket in the coming years. Over the past decade, cobalt mining has already increased by around 30 percent, and copper mining by 44 percent. This rising demand, along with political instability in mining nations, is contributing to a major copper shortage; cobalt is expected to follow suit by 2030.
More devices also mean more electronic waste. The U.S. generates around 46 pounds per capita of e-waste, which releases toxic metals into soil and groundwater surrounding landfills. Recycling is an option, but extracting these valuable metals from discarded devices is often impossible, Gutterman explains. E-waste recycling can also release toxic metals such as mercury, cadmium and lead when done with little oversight and training—which often happens in low- and middle-income nations, harming the health of recycling facility workers and nearby communities.
Worldwide, only about 17 percent of electronics get properly recycled. Researchers are currently working on ways to improve this, but most current methods are nascent and could take years to make a significant impact.
In the meantime refurbishing and reusing your own devices is a more effective solution. That means donating or selling the old phone, laptop or tablet you have stashed away at home, Gutterman says. “Don’t just let it sit around, because every year that it’s sitting in your junk drawer, it’s going to become less valuable,” he says. “Do pass it on.”
To buy and sell used tech, Gutterman recommends online marketplaces such as Gazelle, Back Market and VIP Outlet. Once you hand off your gadget to a refurbisher, they inspect it to see how it’s working and may add new parts such as a battery, outer shell and accessories—or send old parts to recycling centers. You can also donate devices to the nonprofit organization Digitunity, which distributes donated technology to people in need.
When buying refurbished devices, Gutterman’s team at PIRG advises keeping a few things in mind:
- Check that the item comes with a warranty of at least 90 days. (Many refurbishers will offer up to two years.)
- Make sure the item is durable and can be easily repaired. You can check data such as average battery life for specific products at Consumer Reports or search for repairability information at PIRG or iFixit.
- Search for devices that run on software that can still be updated. (Some older devices can no longer run on the latest version.)
- Be wary of printers; ink can build up inside, and refurbishers rarely clean it out.
- Be mindful of hygiene concerns when shopping for items that touch skin, such as headphones.
- Avoid devices with batteries that can’t be replaced—such as Apple AirPods or some tablets that have glued-in batteries.
To effectively reduce the need for mining, consumers should opt for refurbished or used products such as phones or laptops whenever possible, says Jessika Richter, a circular economy researcher at Lund University in Sweden. Many people only consider this option for a spare, but Richter says refurbished items should become one’s first choice.
“If it’s not replacing what we would have bought new, then it’s not replacing mining in the first place,” she says. She notes, however, that the refurbishing process often does require adding some new parts to old gadgets. This is especially common for lithium-ion batteries, which begin to degrade within a few years.
To keep your device working longer, don’t leave it in hot environments or let it reach zero percent charge; both can wear out lithium-ion batteries more quickly, says Camille Richard, head of sustainability at the refurbisher Back Market.
Still, individual consumers can only do so much in the face of a worrying trend: the average life span of a smartphone has fallen since 2019, after it peaked at about 2.96 years. That’s because tech companies often incentivize—or necessitate—the regular purchase of new devices. For example, manufacturers can restrict access to spare parts, repair tools and manuals; this makes it difficult and costly for third-party repair shops to fix devices. Companies also often restrict new software updates on older hardware, ensuring steady consumption of new products every few years, Gutterman says.
In an ideal world, Gutterman says, personal electronics usage patterns would be similar to those involving cars: we should be able to buy a product and use it for more than a decade by swapping parts at a reasonable price whenever needed. This dream has moved closer to reality in the past year after several states passed right-to-repair legislation that makes it easier for consumers to fix their own electronics. In April 2022 Apple launched a self-repair program that gave savvy tinkerers access to the manuals, tools and parts that the company had previously restricted, and Samsung and Google announced partnerships with the DIY repair advocacy organization iFixit.
Even though companies seem to be warming up to easing repair restrictions, Richter says consumers must keep calling for legislation to meaningfully reduce mining and e-waste. After all, it’s simply not in companies’ best interests to slow down our tech consumption.
“It is hard for [companies] to sell us a longer-lasting phone or device based on our current business models,” she says. More legislation promoting durable tech will be necessary “for us to even have the choice as consumers.”