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Comparative life cycle assessment of smartphone reuse: repurposing vs. refurbishment

Abstract

Purpose

Waste management for end-of-life (EoL) smartphones is a growing problem due to their high turnover rate and concentration of toxic chemicals. The versatility of modern smartphones presents an interesting alternative waste management strategy: repurposing. This paper investigates the environmental impact of smartphone repurposing as compared to traditional refurbishing using Life Cycle Assessment (LCA).

Methods

A case study of repurposing was conducted by creating a smartphone “app” that replicates the functionality of an in-car parking meter. The environmental impacts of this prototype were quantified using waste management LCA methodology. Studied systems included three waste management options: traditional refurbishment, repurposing using battery power, and repurposing using a portable solar charger. The functional unit was defined as the EoL management of a used smartphone. Consequential system expansion was employed to account for secondary functions provided; avoided impacts from displaced primary products were included. Impacts were calculated in five impact categories. Break-even displacement rates were calculated and sensitivity to standby power consumption were assessed.

Results and discussion

LCA results showed that refurbishing creates the highest environmental impacts of the three reuse routes in every impact category except ODP. High break-even displacement rates suggest that this finding is robust within a reasonable range of primary cell phone displacement. The repurposed smartphone in-car parking meter had lower impacts than the primary production parking meter. Impacts for battery-powered devices were dominated by use-phase charging electricity, whereas solar-power impacts were concentrated in manufacturing. Repurposed phones using battery power had lower impacts than those using solar power, however, standby power sensitivity analysis revealed that solar power is preferred if the battery charger is left plugged-in more than 20 % of the use period.

Conclusions

Our analysis concludes that repurposing represents an environmentally preferable EoL option to refurbishing for used smartphones. The results suggest two generalizable findings. First, primary product displacement is a major factor affecting whether any EoL strategy is environmentally beneficial. The benefit depends not only on what is displaced, but also on how much displacement occurs; in general, repurposing allows freedom to target reuse opportunities with high “displacement potential.” Second, the notion that solar power is preferable to batteries is not always correct; here, the rank-order is sensitive to assumptions about user behavior.

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Notes

  1. Because the relationship is linear, the interested reader can use the total primary phone impacts shown in the penultimate row of Table 2 with any displacement rate to calculate net impact.

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Acknowledgments

We would like to thank Péter Boda from the Nokia Research Center in Palo Alto, CA for their support of this work. Additionally, we would like to thank Linda Gaines at Argonne National Laboratories for her insights on battery production, and Lee Hefernan at PowerTraveller for providing detailed logistics information.

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Correspondence to Trevor Zink.

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Responsible editor: Stig Irving Olsen

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Zink, T., Maker, F., Geyer, R. et al. Comparative life cycle assessment of smartphone reuse: repurposing vs. refurbishment. Int J Life Cycle Assess 19, 1099–1109 (2014). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11367-014-0720-7

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  • DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/s11367-014-0720-7

Keywords

  • Avoided burden
  • End of life
  • E-waste
  • Reuse
  • Smartphone
  • System expansion
  • Waste management LCA