Reuse & recycle

Reuse & recycle

Philip Johnston

Philip Johnston, managing director of S3 Interactive

What can we do to make the most out of device waste?

New guidelines introduced by the European Commission at the beginning of the year are putting even more emphasis on the mobile industry to deal responsibly with the waste it produces. The Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) directive has been in force for five years now, but since January the Commission has tightened the rules in a bid to increase reuse and recycling rates.

Currently, only approximately one third of waste electrical and electronic equipment is reported to be treated, according to the legislation. The rest goes to landfill and potentially to sub-standard treatment inside or outside

the European Union, with illegal trade to non-EU countries widespread.


Mobile glut

Redundant mobile phones create a significant percentage of this waste and the scale of the problem is becoming massive. This year, total worldwide mobile phone ownership is set to top more than three billion. That’s approximately one handset for every two people on the planet and with growing demand in the developing world the market shows no sign of reaching saturation.

Latest industry show that each phone sold has an average shelf life of just 18 months, which means in just over three years time there will be around six billion redundant phones cluttering up desks and cupboards across the globe. Laid end to end that’s enough to stretch 15 times around the equator, or almost to the moon and back, yet the majority of them are finding their way into rubbish bins and ultimately, into a hole in the ground.

All this adds up to one big environmental headache and one we in the industry needto be taking more seriously. No one likes over regulation; it is bureaucratic, discourages innovation and is ultimately bad for business. However, if the industry does not start to completely embrace these environmental guidelines these regulations will only get tighter and policing tougher.


Wake up!

Local authorities are now waking up to the fact that burying waste in the ground is unsustainable and more and more initiatives are being introduced to recycle household waste. But the biggest threat to the environment comes not from paper, bottles and cans; it comes from electrical goods like mobile phones.

Land filling or incineration of mobiles unlocks dozens of extremely unpleasant substances which unfortunately are critical to making these phones work. Mobile phones and their accessories, like chargers, contain major concentrations of toxic heavy metals including: cadmium, lead, nickel, mercury, manganese, lithium, zinc, arsenic, antimony, beryllium, and copper.

Metals like these are bad news for the environment as they don’t degrade. When land filled, in time these metals will seep out in to the water table and the food chain, potentially causing serious health problems. Poisoning by heavy metals is associated with damage to the nervous system, reproductive and developmental problems and a number of cancers. Cadmium for instance is the seventh most dangerous substance known to man.


Pure gold

But simply throwing away a redundant phone doesn’t just create a potential health hazard. Bring the overall loss of valuable resources into the equation and the story just gets worse. Industry sources claim that up to 600kg of gold and silver are being thrown away in Britain alone every year. Roughly a kilogram of gold and silver can be extracted from every 50,000 handsets that are recycled. With 15 million UK handsets being thrown away that’s gold worth more than £6 million every year.

Gold is used on the circuitry tracking on mobile phones and their silicon chips are impregnated with it to prevent rusting, silver is used on the soldering. Handsets also contain other precious metals such platinum and palladium. These are materials that are indefinitely recyclable. If recycling doesn’t take place, these materials are lost and new raw materials need to be mined to replace them. The production of these raw materials and the goods made from them means more environmental damage through mining, transportation, water and energy use.

But this environmental nightmare can be easily avoided. Advances in recycling technologies mean 100% of a mobile phone is recoverable. It can either be reused in a new phone or recycled into something else.


No waste

Useful parts include aerials, battery connectors, printed circuit board, integrated circuits, keyboards, LCD screens, lenses, microphones, and speakers, they can all be dismantled refurbished and reused in a new phone. Parts that can’t be reused can be recycled. Even the outer plastic body is useful, granulated and used in traffic cones and plant pots.

Under the law the industry has a duty of care to ensure that end of life units are disposed of responsibly. But currently consumers are under no obligation to return old phones to where they bought them.

The industry needs to be acting above and beyond the legislation, giving consumers the information to make informed choices and making it as easy as possible for them to recycle. Increasing recycling rates is about no more than changing consumers attitudes; we all need to work together to achieve this if we are to be taken seriously as a sustainable industry.

S3 Interactive is a Glasgow-based mobile phone recycler. The company takes end of life mobile phones destined for landfill and repairs and resells them globally. Any handsets completely beyond repair are recycled 100%.

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