A cracked screen led me down a path to investigate the feasibility of fixing a broken smartphone in 2023. Let’s examine whether you should (or could) repair, recycle or replace your broken phone.
It finally happened
Earlier this year I noticed something unfortunate. About to head out, I reached for my trusty Light Phone, only to see that it had somehow suffered an almighty crack right down the middle of the screen. The glass had also fractured around the embedded speaker slot, so I decided to go phoneless for my trek, at risk of collecting nasty glass splinters in my ear.
We’ve written extensively about the Light Phone here, and it was truly a bummer to see my beloved daily driver in such a state, especially as it had gone several years without nearly a scratch. Fortunately, I still had a backup in my Samsung A51, but that was a ‘full featured’ smartphone, and I was now without an option for when I wanted basic connectivity, without all the attention seeking apps, notifications and distractions of modern mobiles.
Determined to salvage my minimalist device, I began researching how, or even if, I could have the Light Phone repaired. With a warranty that was now years out of date, my only hope was a third-party repair shop. These attempts turned out to be fruitless, as several local repairers reacted with utter confusion when I presented the tiny phone, though two did offer to repair it for an amount equal to twice the phone’s original price… and none could guarantee that it would still operate as before.
It would be a shame to consign a phone that had served me for over three years to the bottom of a drawer, frozen in time as a rare relic of intentional consumer electronics.
My next port of call was to attempt a self-repair. I’d seen a teardown review years earlier that assessed the durability of the phone and had an iFixit toolkit in my possession. Scouring forums revealed the delicate and intricate workings of the device, and I soon began to realise I was out of my depth. Sure, I’d repaired and replaced components in consumer electronics before, but this was on a whole other level. Plus, where would I get the parts I required to replace the cracked screen?
Admittedly, this was more of a niche type device, so some of this was to be expected, but I was sure there had to be an easier way to repair the phone. Besides, every other component was working just fine, it would be a shame to consign a phone that had served me for over three years to the bottom of a drawer, frozen in time as a rare relic of intentional consumer electronics.
With my hopes sinking, I decided to go to the source. The Light Phone team were always very open with their communications and updates, especially during the development of the device. Perhaps they could point me in the right direction, without the knee-jerk response of ‘your device is out of date, buy a new one’, or providing an expensive out of warranty repair quote.
Chasing that notion, I first went to the companies support page to see if my question might have already been answered, and quickly located a section on repairability. My hunch was right, the device was admittedly difficult to repair, though the company did have a replacement program and advised they were investigating ways to improve repairability. My optimism and resolve were again strengthened.
I pressed on, but before we continue, it’s important to know why I was seeking out a way to repair my phone in the first place.
The impact of smartphones on the environment
Now, many people might have given up after all that effort and just sprung for a new phone. However, I was adamant to investigate all possible paths that would limit my contribution to e-waste, making sure my device did not end up in landfill if I could reasonably avoid it.
Our devices need to last longer, be more repairable and easier to recycle once they reach their effective use date.
After all, the mass production, consumption and pollution attributed to electronic devices is staggering. E-waste in particular is one of the fastest growing categories of pollution, costing the planet around $62.5 billion (USD) per year, and is on track to hit a whopping 120 million tonnes annually, by 2050. Only a small amount of this is recyclable, with less than 20% of e-waste currently salvaged. Add to that the carbon footprint generated by making phones is projected to be larger than that of any other consumer device. To combat this, our devices need to last longer, be more repairable and easier to recycle once they reach their effective use date.
Due to growing consumer awareness around the environmental impact of e-waste, along with a push for increased consumer rights thanks to the Right to Repair movement, manufacturers are starting to take notice. Some are even turning back the clock and making devices that last longer, thanks to designs that make them far easier to repair. Others like, Dell and Samsung, are committed to achieve carbon neutral production processes and are now incorporating recycled materials into their products. The current gold standard in sustainable and repairable mobile phone production are Fair Phone, a company that produces a device that is made from sustainable materials, and is designed with user-repair in mind.
That said, one of the main factors in ensuring sustainability and lessening the environmental impact of these electronic goods is pushing for reduced consumption of devices to begin with. Of particular relevance, this can be achieved in part through extending device longevity. And, with broken device in hand, I was laser focused on exhausting every option available in order to achieve this.
So, I decided to directly contact Light, makers of the Light Phone, in a bid to hopefully get a solution to my sustainability conundrum.
Light’s sustainability plans
I spoke with Joe Hollier, one of the co-founders of Light, who walked me through the companies repair program. Joe was transparent about their process, admitting that it was currently a work in progress. At a high level, returned devices they receive are assessed and then categorised based on their condition and issue. Once they reach a certain quota of devices, those phones are refurbished in bulk.
We continue to support a three-year-old device with ongoing software updates and no expectations for upselling those users a new device every year.Joe Hollier, Light co-founder.
The company is working to improve their turnaround rate, aiming to address scalability issues and ensure devices are sent back in a timely fashion. Joe is optimistic that the company will continue to improve their sustainability and repairability efforts, mentioning that this would be a focus for any future models.
On the topic of planned obsolescence, Joe was firmly against the practice and reiterated the company’s ongoing commitment to the Light Phone 2, a device that is now several years old by this point. “We continue to support a three-year-old device with ongoing software updates and no expectations for upselling those users a new device every year,” he stated.
I also asked Joe about the company’s environmental impact regarding their current production process. He pointed me in the direction of a comprehensive sustainability report, detailing everything from how they have determined their current per unit carbon footprint, overarching sustainability methodology and long-term plans. Joe also mentioned that a vast majority of the phones they have produced are still out in the world being used by their customers – something I could attest to.
“Over 90% of our returns we are able to directly re-use with minor refurbishing,” said Joe. He estimated that the remaining 10% were a mix of more elaborate repairs, and that about two-thirds of the devices are still re-used directly in a Light Phone, e.g.: replacing the screen stack on a refurbished model.
Very few devices were unusable, however if they were classified as such, they would be recycled, with any parts that could not be salvaged being disposed of responsibly.
Unfortunately, with the repair program being a work in progress it meant that there was currently no logistical way to submit and return devices from Australia (my locale), though Joe did admit they were looking into how to resolve this issue. I could still send the broken phone in, as a donation of sorts, but instead opted to keep my damaged device so that I myself had some spare parts on hand for any future repair attempts, should they arise.
I also chose to receive one of the refurbished Light Phone units, which you’d be hard pressed to tell was not a brand-new device. Though ideally it would have been preferable to repair my original phone, I settled for this compromise, as it in some way helped to reduce the carbon emissions that would have been involved with the production of a new phone.
And, along the way I learned even more about smartphone sustainability, and the impact that these marvels of technology have not just on our daily lives, but on the planet itself. Here’s hoping that the industry can continue to refine its repairability and production processes and that we as consumers can continue to make better purchasing choices.