Spare phones to transformed homes: the difference 15k devices has made

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Spare phones to transformed homes: the difference 15k devices has made

By Alex Robinson 25th May, 2023

Ever since the lockdowns in 2020, we’ve been working with Virgin Media O2 to reduce e-waste and tackle digital exclusion by rehoming unused and second-hand smart devices. Our campaign, Community Calling, has just hit a major milestone in our mission to make tech go further: we’ve rehomed 15,000 phones, tablets and laptops! Each device is coupled with free data provided by Virgin Media O2, through their National Databank. It’s a great moment to ask what impact the project has had, look at why it makes sense to take on electronic waste and digital exclusion together, and show how you can help too.

What impact has Community Calling had on digital exclusion?

There are 1.5 million digitally isolated households in the UK; more than one in ten don’t have access to the internet, and 15% of people aged 65 and over have never been online. A lack of digital access and skills can have huge negative impacts: they’re associated with increased loneliness and social isolation, and less access to jobs and education. These are linked to financial exclusion, poorer health outcomes and a lower life expectancy.

We've rehomed 2,500 devices through the charities Women’s Aid and Migrant Help which has shown the value these devices can have firsthand. One of the groups they support, Trafford Domestic Abuse Services, said the devices being available for survivors has helped reduce isolation and increased feelings of safety, and that the campaign is a great opportunity to help empower survivors.

One recipient said, “Being given the phone has opened more opportunities for me, I feel less stressed and alone. Being able to call my mum has meant everything.” We’ll continue working with Migrant Help to rehome a total of 5,000 smartphones through their services.

We also launched a trial with Macmillan Cancer Support to provide Community Calling smartphones to digitally isolated people living with cancer. During the pandemic, many aspects of cancer treatment moved online, and many in-person support services disappeared meaning digital devices became crucial to access support. Community Calling devices increase access to digital information and support and ensure that anybody with cancer has an opportunity to shape and inform Macmillan’s innovation work.

Community Calling is a core part of VMO2’s goal to connect one million digitally excluded people. It’s also an integral part of Hubbub’s strategy to enable the delivery of more projects that have both social and environmental impact. As well as connecting 15,000 people, the project has avoided over 800 tonnes of CO2e by keeping phones in circulation for longer.

What’s the relevance of e-waste?

Despite the crisis of digital exclusion, there are more than enough old phones sitting in homes and offices to provide everyone with connectivity, with plenty to spare: as a nation we’re hoarding over 28 million old phones.

These forgotten phones have been dialling up the environmental impact. Producing one smartphone uses 600 times its weight in raw materials and some increasingly rare materials, such as lithium and cobalt. The Royal Mint are creating a plant in Wales to extract gold from circuit boards from devices like phones and laptops – showing just how valuable our ‘waste’ really is. Over three-quarters of a phone's carbon footprint comes at the manufacturing stage, so the longer we keep devices in use and the more we choose refurbished over new, the lower the impact.

What’s next?

When you combine the financial pressures of the cost-of-living crisis with the environmental and social benefits of refurbishing and rehoming second hand devices, campaigns like Community Calling are not only a no-brainer, they’re also essential.

We’ll be working with Community Calling’s trusted tech partner and B Corp, Genuine Solutions, to support generous businesses like Capita and NHS England to gift us their old business phones.

If you’ve gifted an old phone as an individual, thank you, and do keep an ear and eye out for friends and family that have old phones forgotten at home. Genuine Solutions can recycle any old phone that doesn’t meet the standards for rehoming, so the device is in safe hands.

Beyond these smart devices, we’re reducing e-waste where it’s useful to our community partners. For example, we’re redistributing headphones to Migrant Help, to support the creation of private learning spaces for those with learning disabilities, which can be hard to do in busy temporary accommodation settings.

Community Calling is part of our wider ambition to cut e-waste and create positive social impact from the tech we already have. We’re inspiring new attitudes to refurbished technology among Gen Z with our Time After Time campaign and supporting innovative approaches to reducing e-waste with a £500,000 fund of the same name. The Tech Lending Community Fund is supporting people in temporary accommodation through access to second-hand tablets. We’re also working with O2 Priority to ensure beneficiaries of Community Calling are aware of the perks of the platform, such as free coffee or cinema tickets, which they all have access to. All are part of our wider partnership with Virgin Media O2 focused on connecting the disconnected and giving old devices a new lease of life.

How you can help

Every week, we get messages from individuals, from carers, and from community groups with moving stories about impact that spare devices could have for them. If you or your organisation have old tech you could contribute, please reach out to our team:

If you’d like to know more about our work on e-waste, or explore how we could work together, then please do get in touch.

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