Don’t Trash Your Old Phone: It’s Worth Something

RICO-Sensors

This originally appeared in Forbes.

Apple just launched iPad Air 2.  Six weeks ago, it debuted its sleek, oddly-bendable iPhone 6.  According to some estimates, Apple has already sold over 20 million units of them.

So what will happen to all the other working iPhone 5s and iPad Airs?  They’ll meet a hammer, a trash bin, or hopefully, a new owner.

For an industry that prizes itself on being “clean” and streamlined, it’s a dirty cycle.  Much like in publishing, the sales are based on newer, glitzier models. They’re intentionally made not to last; after a year, the battery life will wear down, users get annoyed with its inferior performance, and it’s time to replace.

However, e-waste is no longer just a tree-hugger’s problem. Large e-waste dumpsites occupy huge swaths of land in Ghana, China, Vietnam, India.  Note, they’re almost all in the developing world.  Toxic fumes clog the lungs of the workers stuck in these hazardous jobs.

These dumpsites wouldn’t comply with our environmental standards in the US.  That’s why our “recycled” e-waste ends up overseas.  Even recyclers lack the ability to recycle in the most ethical and environmental fashion.  Because it’s expensive.  Burning it, smashing it, or selling it (and its pieces and parts) in informal markets is easier, and cheaper.

When you look at what goes into a chip in a smartphone, it’s striking.  Each chip has about 60 chemical parts (few, if any, could be classified as “eco-friendly.”).  Add that to the astronomical number of phones being produced each year.  China made over 1 billion phones in 2012.  The US has thrown out in excess of 250 million units of e-waste since 2010.  That’s computer screens, TVs, cell phones, cameras, and more.

E-waste is a big part of the climate debate.  Estimates suggest that we could be spewing out 65 tons of e-waste by 2017.  So, as more cell phones are added globally, and more people are connected, we need to bear in mind, more people will be creating waste.  Waste that’s not easy to break down.

This all sounds horrific.  But companies are beginning to identify ways to repurpose old phones.  Consumers, of course, can donate their phones to organizations such as Hope Phones, which uses them to carry out maternal health care and development schemes in Africa, Asia, and South America.

Or you could start a business with this trash.  MindHelix, a start-up (with a campaign online), is repurposing used smartphones as home security programs.  Based in SF, the company originates from a unique incubator, located in the southern tip of India: Kerala’s Startup Village.  Deepak Ravindran, a college dropout turned successful tech entrepreneur, is pioneering this tucked away tech hub.  Innoz, Ravindran’s startup, somersaulted into a success, by allowing Java-based users to “google” questions without a smartphone.  The company amassed a following of 130 million users.

Or you could start a business with this trash.  MindHelix, a start-up (with a Kickstarter campaign online), is repurposing used smartphones as home security programs.  Based in SF, the company originates from a unique incubator, located in the southern tip of India: Kerala’s Startup Village.  Deepak Ravindran, a college dropout turned successful tech entrepreneur, is pioneering this tucked away tech hub.  Innoz, Ravindran’s startup, somersaulted into a success, by allowing Java-based users to “google” questions without a smartphone.  The company amassed a following of 130 million users.

Photos Courtesy of MindHelix.

That’s why Ravindran is staunchly supporting other young Indian engineers who are looking for an alternative to a white-collar job. Entrepreneurs like Kallidil Kalidasan of MindHelix who are producing products that Ravindran says could help India find its “first billion-dollar technology.”

MindHelix’s flagship product is a multi-colored robot-like device, Rico, that uses your old (and even damaged) iPhone or Android smartphone to protect your home.

Here’s a list of Rico’s capabilities: motion detection, temperature change, carbon monoxide monitoring, smoke detection, controlling smart sockets (that turn off power supply), and adjusting humidity levels.

All the features of a smartphone are translated as the “eyes and ears” of Rico, says Kalidasan.  For instance, the camera serves as a motion detector. Priced at $99, it’ll give old smartphones a new life.

But for those phones who are chucked away, there are a handful of factories using the necessary equipment (and environmental precautions) to properly breakdown phones.

One of these is ironically in India – a country whose environmental policies have been dismal but is home to Bangalore, one of the biggest IT hubs on the planet.  Just outside of Bangalore, Rohan Gupta runs a high-tech facility, processing e-waste.  Yet, he takes it further, by extracting metals from the waste and turning them into “eco-friendly” jewelry and watches.

Entrepreneurs who can refashion e-waste will not only be doing a service to society, but can actually build profitable businesses, derived from an endless supply of junk–the classic tale of trash to treasure.

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