The Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC) has issued a stark warning that our tech consumption habits are highly unsustainable, leaving us at risk of exhausting the raw elements we need and exacerbating environmental damage. The problem of e-waste is growing by about 2 million tonnes a year with less than 20% currently being collected and recycled. Smartphones contain around 30 different elements which are increasingly costly, and some are in danger of running out.

One solution to the growing waste crisis, suggested by the RSC, is that we start mining e-waste from waste dumps rather than extracting raw materials from the earth. The Royal Mint has also announced an innovative solution with plans to build a plant in South Wales to recover gold from waste electrical equipment. When up and running this plant is expected to generate ‘hundreds of kilograms’ of gold each year and create 40 jobs.

Extending the life of discarded devices

Obviously, governments need to overhaul the e-waste recycling infrastructure and there needs to be clearer communications to consumers. Polling commissioned by the RSC discovered that whilst people are worried about the environmental effect of the unused devices they have in their homes, they do not know what to do with them and are concerned about the security of recycling schemes.

Whilst recycling is important, many of the discarded devices are highly functional and could be reused extending their life and providing benefit to people unable to afford a smartphone. Community Calling is a pioneering partnership between Virgin Media O2 and Hubbub seeking to address this challenge by boosting smartphone reuse and tackling digital exclusion.

Thanks to the generosity of members of the public and businesses which have gifted smartphones, Community Calling has now successfully redistributed 10,000 second-hand smartphones along with more than £1 million of free O2 mobile data. All devices are data-wiped and packaged as new before they are rehomed with someone who needs them. 

A landmark in tackling digital exclusion and providing a lifeline for people

Community Calling has supported a range of charities, such as Women’s Aid and Migrant Help, as well as people affected by homelessness and data poverty, to tackle digital exclusion.  The devices come with free mobile data, texts and calls from the National Databank - set up by Virgin Media O2 and digital inclusion charity, Good Things Foundation.

The distributed devices have proved to be a lifeline for people who need them as they help them to get online to access essential services, such as healthcare appointments, mental health support, training courses, and to apply for jobs and take part in virtual interviews. 

The 10,000th device has been rehomed with Rohi, aged 18, who lives in Lewisham, south-east London. Rohi has used the device to get online to access essential services, to access online meetings and for job applications.   

Rohi said:  

“I use my phone to talk to my friends, access benefits, and apply for jobs. Being in supported accommodation, young people have limited amount of money to use for items such as smartphones or tablets especially with the running cost. The phone has been very useful for accessing zoom meetings, housing benefit portals and Universal Credit site.” 

Community Calling forms part of Virgin Media O2’s Better Connections Plan – the company’s new sustainability strategy, where it will use its purpose, people, and products to power a better, more connected, and greener future for its customers and communities nationwide.

Community Calling is one of the ways Virgin Media O2 will reach its goal to connect one million digitally excluded people through free and affordable connectivity and services by 2025.   

Explaining the role of Community Calling within the strategy Nicola Green of Virgin Media O2 said:

“When we launched Community Calling during the height of the pandemic in 2020, we had one aim: to connect the disconnected.  We’re incredibly proud and humbled to see how the programme has grown and helped thousands of people across the UK, with the devices and data providing a lifeline for those who need them so they can stay in touch with loved ones and get online to access essential services – from healthcare appointments to applying for jobs.  Community Calling is just one of the ways we’re stepping up for people, the planet and communities with our Better Connections Plan where we’re committed to helping people to lead more sustainable, connected lives, while reducing our impact on the planet.”  

From Hubbub’s perspective, Community Calling meets our ambition to deliver campaigns that have social and environmental benefit. In addition to helping 10,000 people get connected it is estimated that the campaign has saved more than 535 tonnes of CO2e, which is the same as flying economy from London to New York and back over 850 times.  

What's next?

In the year ahead Hubbub is planning to extend campaigns to tackle e-waste, continuing to help local communities and collect evidence of its environmental impact. This evidence will help to inform the development of DEFRA’s Extended Producer Responsibility policies seeking to reduce e-waste. If you would like to get involved in future campaigns, please contact [email protected]

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