How Long Do We Keep Our Devices?

It is difficult to get reliable data on how long we hold onto the 19+ billion edge devices attached to the global ICT infrastructure. Diverse device types and cultural practices complicate the issue. So do changing purchase and lease plans.

We made our first pass at this when we looked at mobile phones in early 2009. The frequently cited figure for global mobile phone discards back then was ~400 million per year. This comes to an average unit life of 8.5 years calculated against the entire 2008 installed base. Even measured against the 2007 base, that is a 7 year life.

How realistic is this 7-8 year number? We know that first user retention is much shorter in developed countries. This might be offset by potentially longer retention rates among emerging user communities, reuse, and discard latency due to stored unused phones. The bottom line is that is is difficult to know exactly how many mobile devices are irresponsibly discarded every year worldwide. But we do know it is 100s of millions and growing.

The Telecommunications Industry Association (TIA) 2016 website reports, "On average, the original owner keeps a laptop computer for only three years and will discard their cell phone after only 24 months." The TIA is a U.S. organization, so we assume this describes the behavior of Americans.

The Wall Street Journal reported in April 2016 that, ".Citigroup estimates the phone-replacement cycle will stretch to 29 months for the first half of 2016, up from 28 months in the fourth quarter of 2015 and the typical range of 24 to 26 months seen during the two prior years." The paper attributes this longer lifecycle, in part, to changes in carrier pricing. "The death of the two-year cellphone contract has broken many Americans from a habit of routinely upgrading their smartphones."

Chemical & Engineering News cited estimates from Hywel Jones, a materials scientist at En­gland’s Sheffield Hallam University, in 2014. "More than 1.8 billion new cell phones will be bought in 2014, but within just a few years, 44% of them will end up “hibernating” in drawers. About the same share will be resold and passed on, and 4% will end up in landfills. Only 3% will be recycled." It's positive that 40%+ will be reused after their first ownership, but one suspects the 44% stored will more likely end up discarded than reused/recycled.