In the modern world, a smartphone in your pocket is an absolute necessity. It keeps you connected to your friends, family, work, and the world around you at all times. While this is not inherently bad, it is our ingrained attitude towards ritually upgrading these devices that takes a huge environmental toll by producing unnecessary e-waste.

Mishaan Ratan, Chief Marketing Officer from on-demand subscription platform Rentoza believes we need to embrace a new culture of consumption if we are to break the cycle. “A new model of consumption that accounts for rising levels of e-waste needs to be adopted and it starts with analysing how we consume these products in the first place.”

In South Africa, Ratan believes mobile device e-waste is partly driven by the popular phone contract model in which telecommunications companies provide a new handset every 36 months. “By the time you reach the end of your contract, you are at least three generations behind on the current tech,” says Ratan.

Once they upgrade to a new device, he says people generally find it difficult to sell the old devices. If they are damaged, he says it then becomes uneconomical to repair them. Once this happens, Ratan says the device owner doesn’t really care what happens to the device any longer because they simply have no use for it.

“Without an alternative outlet to drive these devices, you start having this effect where you start having exponentially more devices being discarded in the market as time goes by,” says Ratan.

Handheld devices account for a total of 10% of e-waste globally, yet the total annual carbon footprint of manufacturing mobile phones is sizeable, equal to at least the annual carbon emissions of a small country. In a local context, the e-Waste Association of South Africa says South Africa generates about 6.2 kilograms of e-waste per citizen annually and only 12% of that is recycled.

Ratan says this can largely be avoided by instilling a culture that preserves devices rather than tosses them aside. “We desperately need to adopt a culture of refurbishment. This is the only economically responsible way to deal with the problem at hand.”

With refurbishment as a core part of its business model, Ratan believes adopting a subscription mentality will increase demand for refurbished devices and bolster a circular economy in which e-waste is significantly reduced.

At the heart of subscription is non-ownership,” says Ratan. “What that means immediately for these products is that instead of throwing old products away you can return them. The benefits of subscription are that we are then able to extend the life of a product up to seven usable years in some cases.”

Given the socio-economic landscape in South Africa, he says there is always a demand for devices and not necessarily the latest and greatest. This allows subscription companies like Rentoza to recirculate devices constantly to ensure that even people looking for a feature phone can access a new generation smart device at a comparable cost and then return it when they are done.

As phones evolve from feature to smart feature, and the brands ebb and flow between who has the best new thing, Ratan says consumers are conditioned to crave the latest devices and simply discard the old tech. He believes a move towards subscription is a move towards a greener and more circular economy as the barrier of ownership is removed, allowing consumers to always have affordable access to better tech where nothing goes to waste.