Third-world lessons for recycling phones

Nokia research team has scanned bazaars and street shops from Brazil to Iran to learn how developing countries deal with their mobile technology.

Street repair services in Delhi, India.
Street repair services for cell phones are a big industry in India. Technicians there get a diploma from a 'Mobile Repairing Institute.' Jan Chipchase/Nokia

SAN FRANCISCO--Jan Chipchase is a cell phone modification guru. A researcher at Nokia Design in Tokyo, he's seen cell phones modified to hold up to 16 SIM cards and plenty more in his role at the company.

Chipchase is a member of a team at Finnish cell phone giant Nokia that's trying to lower the cost of phones for emerging markets, an effort that's part market development and part recycling. The group of 15 has scanned bazaars and street shops in places as diverse as Ghana, Brazil, Iran, India, Egypt, Uzbekistan, Vietnam, China, and Mongolia to learn how end users relate to their products--and they discovered surprises that could impact consumer electronics makers within the next 15 years.

Jan Chipchase
Jan Chipchase Nokia

Their main finding: there's no limit to how cell phones can be modified and how their life spans can be extended.

And breathing new life into phones usually doesn't take a complex set of tools. In most cases, handsets can be reborn with the help of just a screwdriver and a toothbrush sprayed with alcohol to clean the contact heads.

In Accra, the capital of Ghana, the shining device on display might very likely be an old phone that got a tuneup. Have a defunct phone? In China, you can go to a bazaar and purchase any part for the 20 most popular phones. The shelves are also filled with printouts of repair handbooks.

"The point is that you think the thing is a closed box that can't be tinkered with, but you can actually go into a shop and build your own phone," Chipchase told CNET News.com last week. He stopped here to speak at a meeting arranged by research and development firm Adaptive Path.

One of Chipchase's favorite pastimes while traveling is to buy a mobile phone, smash it, and bring it to a cell phone repair shop to see how technicians deal with the mess. He calls this "the repairing experience."

Open mobile phone
So, you want that phone with 3G? Jan Chipchase/Nokia

"The informal repair culture...makes mobile phones something more affordable to price-sensitive customers, increasing the lifetime of products while lowering the environmental-impact risks," he said, adding that with new phones appearing constantly, street mechanics very quickly learn how to work with new models.

"If they want to stay in business, they've got to listen to what the customer wants," Chipchase said.

In Tehran, meanwhile, consumers can just bring a phone to a shop where the shelves are filled with the latest software ready for download--pirated just weeks after a new model has hit the world market.

The same software-on-demand thinking goes for India--on the streets of New Delhi customers can buy a video phone that plays cricket clips and Bollywood films. And if you're in the market for a job there, you can get a diploma from a "Mobile Repairing Institute."

Installing alternative languages, switching frequency bands, unlocking software installations--these are part of everyday life in many of the places Chipcase and his team visited. In Cairo, Egypt, grocery store owners ask if you want to buy ringtones as you shop for food.

Looking for new ways to recycle
Meanwhile, with Earth Day approaching April 22, the recycling of electronics such as cell phones may assume a more prominent spot in people's minds.

In some parts of the world, the notion of not recycling electronics might seem absurd. People save their wages for months to be able to buy a cell phone, a precious little tool for small businesses or keeping in contact with family and friends where the Internet or even a landline just isn't accessible.

But in the U.S., there are more than half a billion retired phones, and less than 1 percent of those get recycled, according to information from the U.S. Geological Survey and nonprofit Earthworks.

Nokia, which dominates the world market for cell phones in almost every part of the planet except for the U.S., thinks there's much to be done on that front.

One example of what might be a new approach is the Nokia prototype cell phone Remade , which the company showed off at the GSMA Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Spain, in February. Remade's cover, rather than coming from petroleum-based plastic, is made of recycled aluminum cans and old rubber tires, and the device inside comes from a used cell phone.

laptop for cell phones
Cell phone software on demand in Delhi, India. Jan Chipchase/Nokia

"This is a concept, to take waste and turn it into something useful," Chipchase said. Although the thin, silver Remade doesn't yet make phone calls and may never reach the market, it can be seen as a commitment to change--and a step toward a possible eco-trend.

During its travels, the Nokia design team discovered a whole business ecosystem around the mobile phone.

And no wonder, as half of the world's population owns a wireless device, according to a report by Informa Telecoms and Media. By the end of last year there were 3.3 billion subscribers. India's subscriber base will pass the U.S. this month, according to Cellular-News.

"In terms of scale, no electronic object has gone so far," Chipchase said.

Asked how Nokia's management has reacted to his team's findings, Chipchase said the data inspires a sense of potential. "People who don't work in these countries are surprised," he said. But "they see it as a possibility, more than a threat."

phones on a table
Many times, all that's needed to repair a cell phone is a good screwdriver and a toothbrush sprayed with alcohol to clean the contact heads. Jan Chipchase/Nokia

 

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