Why is the life of mobile phones so short?

Published: 28 January 2022

Mobile phones are made from rare raw materials and their production, transport and use generate significant emissions and waste. This is why, it is worrying that they spend relatively little time with one owner: according to research by the National Media and Infocommunications Authority (NMHH) 53% of second-hand mobile phones are no more than two years old, and 85% are no more than five years old.

The most environmentally friendly mobile phone is the one that has not yet been manufactured. According to a survey carried out by the NMHH last year, 94% of the population aged 14 and over use mobile phones in Hungary. It would be important for consumers to take sustainability into account when using and buying devices. In particular, this would require devices designed for long-term use. But as technology quickly becomes outdated, people often change their devices too. 53% of second-hand mobile phones are no more than two years old and 85% are less than five years old. Devices older than that are typically used by older people and people who do not use the internet on their phones.

The short life cycle of mobile phones is not only due to technological obsolescence. Only 26% of the replaced devices were lost, broken or became outdated beyond repair. 35% of them were broken or the battery needed replacing. These phones could probably have been repaired with the right design, parts supply and service network, thus reducing the environmental burden of manufacturing a new product. In 32% of the cases, replacement could have been avoided because the phone was working properly, but the user still got a new one, bought a device under the influence of a discount or just got tired of the old, outdated phone.

Reuse and a secondary market for outdated devices can also reduce demand for manufacturing. However, perhaps because of this rapid obsolescence, only 15% of people use devices which were bought or received second-hand. The vast majority (82%) bought their phones new.

25% of users gave away or sold the replaced device, this way encouraging reuse. This rate seems to contradict the 15% rate of second-hand mobile device users mentioned earlier. However, we can assume that a significant proportion of the devices given away are used by children, who were not included in the research. The majority (56%) preferred to keep their previous phone when buying a new one. Only 10% disposed of it as separated waste for recycling, and 3% simply threw the device away which is waste valuable for the industry but polluting.

It is important to know that under the NMHH’s “Netre fel!” device replacement programme, outdated devices unable to connect to the 4G network can be replaced with a subsidy from the state, and the devices handed in at retailers are recycled.

Research background

The aim of the national representative research of NMHH is to learn about and better understand the state of the electronic communications sector in Hungary. The research is based on the NMHH’s online survey of consumers in the electronic communications market in 2021.