How often do you upgrade your tablet or smartphone? What about the sustainability impact?

Upgrading your smartphone or tablet to the latest device model is tempting; they’re typically cheaper than a computer and new features are constantly competing for our attention. Current figures show that users are switching up their mobile devices at record rates.

But what about the sustainability risks of this rapid-upgrade trend?

Consider these alarming facts:

  • The number of smartphones shipped per year is set to almost double over the next five years (Green Tablet and Handset Report, 2012, Juniper Research).
  • In the UK, the average smartphone lifetime is around 29 months. In the US, that figure is only about 18 months!
  • The recycling rate for mobile products is the lowest of all major electronics categories, as people either store or simply throw away their used devices  (Source US EPA)

From a sustainability perspective, shorter product cycles and a growing amount of discarded devices make a sustainable, responsible choice more difficult.

Time between new product rollouts is shrinking

Feeding the upgrade trend is the fact that new product releases are more frequent than ever.

For example, earlier this year Citi Research Analyst Glen Yeung pointed out that the frequency of new product rollouts for some major brands has increased by up to as much as 66% during the past 5 years.

What are the sustainability risks?

Faster replacement cycles and intense cost pressure in manufacturing all make tablets and smartphones challenging for buyers wanting to make a socially and environmentally responsible choice.


  • Pressure to reduce time-to-market and costs in manufacturing has raised the risk of poor working conditions in factories where mobile devices are made.
  • Rapid replacement cycles lead to mounting e-waste as users discard what are often fully functional devices instead of recycling them. By trashing electronics, we raise the risk for hazardous substances in the environment and the export of toxic e-waste to developing countries

What you can do

When thinking about a product upgrade, first consider these options:

  • Extend the life of your product – sometimes extending the life of your existing device is an option – either through a repair or software upgrade for example.
  • Recycle – If you do upgrade, don’t throw away your existing device. Make use of recycling and take back programs offered by your brand of tablet or smartphone.
  • Repurpose – Instead of storing an old device, take advantage of programs that collect used electronics for refurbishing and re-use.

When buying a new mobile device, make sure it carries TCO Certified Tablets/Smartphones. This way you can help reduce the flow of tablets and smartphones ending up in the trash or worse, being dumped in a developing country and exposing the local population and their environment to toxic e-waste.

The criteria in TCO Certified are designed to help reduce this sustainability risk. All smartphone and tablet models carrying TCO Certified meet c