New Report Finds 66,000 Reusable Phones Scrapped Because of Activation Locks

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CoPIRG Foundation

A new report from the CoPIRG Foundation finds that since 2015, a local electronics recycler has had to scrap 66,000 donated but reusable phones because of activation locks, a feature that is increasingly being used by phone manufacturers. The data comes from The Wireless Alliance, an electronics recycler based in Colorado that receives millions of donated phones from across the country every year and underscores how activation locks are undermining the used phone marketplace and unnecessarily contributing to electronic waste.  

(CoPIRG Advocate Allison Conwell speaking to CBS4 News in Wireless Alliance’s facility – photo credit staff)

“Donating phones to be reused can reduce electronic waste and it can save consumers money by fostering a robust used phone marketplace,” said Allison Conwell, Consumer Advocate with CoPIRG Foundation. “Unfortunately, the rise of activation locks is leading to the scrapping of tens of thousands of perfectly reusable phones, which fuels the production of more new phones and the pollution that comes with that.”

Activation locks function as a kill switch if you lose your phone and prevent thieves from accessing your information. They were designed to deter thieves by making it more difficult for a stolen phone to work again and therefore less valuable to steal. Unfortunately, if the owner of a donated phone does not go into their settings and turn the activation lock off, then these phones can’t be used again. 

“We need a way to communicate with people who donate activation locked phones to us to verify that they donated their phones to us and turn off their activation lock,” said Peter Schindler, Founder and CEO of The Wireless Alliance. “It’s as simple as pushing a few buttons.” 

The numbers in the CoPIRG Foundation report are from only one electronics recycling facility so the number of reusable phones that had to be scrapped due to activation locks over the last four years is likely much higher, which carries a big environmental impact. According to the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, 165 pounds of raw material go into making a single cell phone. he latest numbers from the U. S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) indicate that Americans discard over 416,000 cell phones every day, or approximately 7,800 in Colorado, which means reusing phones becomes a crucial step in reducing the amount of raw materials we have to use to produce  new cell phones. 

Every reusable phone that is scrapped also undermines the marketplace. Even though we have seen major advances in cell phone technology and capabilities over the last two decades, for many Coloradans, a phone that is three to five years old can perform all the functions they need including staying in touch with family, checking the weather, getting directions, watching a video, reading emails, checking the news, and taking a picture. 

CoPIRG Foundation’s report included recommendations for how activation locked phones could be reused without undermining the effectiveness of their anti-theft deterrence including:

  • Electronics recyclers can run activation locked phone International Mobile Equipment Identity (IMEI) numbers through carrier, manufacturer, or national databases to check if they are stolen. IMEI numbers of phones that have not been reported Lost or Stolen in the last 30 days should be sent to the manufacturer, and the manufacturer should unlock it. Any that have been stolen should be turned over to law enforcement or returned to the original owner either by the recycler or the manufacturer.
  • Electronics recyclers can submit IMEI numbers to manufacturers and have the manufacturer send an email or push notification to the original owner’s current device verifying that their phone was donated. If the customer positively verifies that they donated their phone or does not reply within 30 days, the activation lock should be removed. Any phones that were stolen should be immediately sent to the phone’s rightful owner or to law enforcement.
  • Electronics recyclers should identify ways to warn consumers on their donation boxes to remove the activation lock.

Manufacturers of cell phones with activation locks should make it clear to new purchasers that the activation lock must be removed if they ever choose to donate or pass down their phone. 

“Consumers are trying to do their part to cut electronic waste by donating their devices to recyclers for reuse and we need phone manufacturers to work with those recyclers to ensure tens of thousands of phones are not needlessly trashed, ” said Conwell.

The report can be found at