Refurbished devices would expand access to the Internet for many.

Photographer: Anna Zieminski/AFP/Getty Images

New India Should Welcome Old IPhones

Adam Minter is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is the author of “Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion-Dollar Trash Trade.”
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Roughly 80 percent of India's population lacks access to the Internet. Apple, purveyor of some of the world’s most expensive smartphones, has a solution. As the Indian Express reported last week, the U.S.-based company hopes to import used, refurbished Chinese iPhones into India and sell them for cheap. Later, it plans to build factories to refurbish iPhones in India itself, thus expanding the supply of affordable devices for millions of middle-class and lower middle-class Indians.

QuickTake Apple

What's not to like? In the eyes of Indian bureaucrats, reused phones are that much closer to the end of their life spans. That implies the roughly 250,000 used iPhones Apple is proposing to import annually will quickly add to India's mountains of electronic waste -- a huge problem the country is already struggling to manage. (Apple argues that its refurbished phones are as good as new, and last longer than many low-end brands.) 

Such concerns are understandable. India, like most developing nations, is way behind in developing the technology and infrastructure to manage the flood of devices their newly affluent citizens are using and discarding. But blocking the import of used electronics, as the Indian government has long done, won’t hold back that tide. Instead, such barriers will merely ensure that the cost of bridging the digital divide is more expensive, wasteful and environmentally damaging than if used goods were traded freely.

Of course, the human and environmental harm caused by improper disposal of e-waste is horrifying, especially in developing countries. But in recent years, study after study has shown that used electronics are primarily exported for re-use -- not recycling or dumping. My own reporting in Guiyu, China, once known as “the electronic wastebasket of the world,” found that 80 percent of the revenue generated by the town came from refurbishing and reselling devices and components. Likewise, according to United Nations Environmental Program data, 80 percent of the used gadgets imported into Ghana, long an international e-waste dumping bogeyman, are either working or repairable, and play a critical role in expanding access to technology among the country's poor.

The global trade in used smartphones is growing fast, and it’s not just confined to the developing world. A 2015 report from the U.K.-based Green Alliance environmental think tank estimated that the global market will grow from 53 million handsets in 2013 to 257 million in 2018. Many of those old phones are refurbished and resold in the U.S. (in 2014 Sprint refurbished more than 80 percent of the 3 million phones it bought back from consumers). Others are flowing into the developing world (including India, via gray markets), where the increasingly competitive market in used electronics is attracting private equity and inspiring newspaper columnists to explain how to buy used iPhones for cheap.

That’s good for Internet-hungry consumers who can’t afford new devices, whether they’re in India or Indiana. But it’s also very good for the environment. According to Apple, 84 percent of the carbon emissions associated with the iPhone 6s come from manufacturing; only 10 percent come from usage. “This makes product lifetime the key determinant of overall environmental impact,” explains the 2015 Green Alliance report. “A device that lasts longer spreads its manufacturing impacts over a longer time period.” It’s not just carbon, either. By extending the lives of devices, re-use markets reduce the demand for critical materials, such as cobalt, that are extracted using means harmful to human health and the environment.

Apple should be credited for encouraging re-use in India, and especially for committing to build factories for the refurbishment of old electronics there. India and other countries should welcome the effort and the expanded trade in used goods. However, they shouldn’t stop there.

If Apple wants to supply used goods to developing countries, it should be required to support those devices, too. Thus, India and other developing countries should require Apple and other device makers to commit to updating their operating systems in used phones for at least five years from the release date of the device, and to provide security updates for at least a decade. (Currently, length of support varies by manufacturer’s whim, but can be as short as two years.)

Second, Apple and other manufacturers should be required to release their repair manuals into the public domain and stop using copyright laws to scrub them from the Internet. Reuse requires a healthy repair environment, and Apple could enable one by giving independent repair shops and individuals access to the same information it provides its designated technicians.

A thriving trade in reusable electronics won’t solve the growing tide of global e-waste. But it can slow the growth curve, while expanding access to technologies essential to succeeding in today’s global economy. India should encourage Apple to lead the way.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Adam Minter at aminter@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Nisid Hajari at nhajari@bloomberg.net