Recycling Your Old Mobile Phone

By 2020, more than 12 million tonnes per year of Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) will be generated in the EU.

Electronic waste (e-waste) is becoming a growing concern, to which thrown-out mobile phones contribute significantly.

Autor*in Anna Rees, 08.15.12

As phone companies continue to extol the virtues of having the latest mobile and the average lifespan of many mobile phones sitting at around the one year mark, the pile of unwanted, unused mobile phones will continue to grow.

In 2014, the amount of e-waste generated in Europe was an astonishing 15 kg per capita, the highest of any region in the world, while at the same time, around 70 per cent of a mobile phone is made up of completely recylable materials. Theoretically at least, the precious metals found inside phones could be endlessly recycled into a low carbon supply chain for electronic goods.

Why Recycle?

For the lowdown on the human and environmental cost of mobile phones – from planned obsolescence to conflict minerals – click over to our Knowledge article on the topic (opens in a new tab).

Smartphones are tiny treasure troves of rare metals that can be recovered and reused. It has been estimated that one million phones could deliver nearly 16 tonnes of copper, 350kg of silver, 34kg of gold, and 15kg of palladium. Recycling and recovering these metals could massively reduce the need for mining, meaning less of a strain both on the earth and on the (often exploited) people who are employed to work in the mines around the world.

Mobile phones and accessories also contain large concentrations of toxic heavy metals and chemicals like arsenic, cadmium, lead, mercury, manganese, and zinc. If not disposed of properly, these substances end up in landfill sites where environmentalists warn they could leak into waterways and oil. Additionally, when consumers sell phones into the informal electronic waste sector, they’re often taken apart to retrieve valuable metals under non-regulated and hazardous conditions. These metals and chemicals have been linked to a range of medical conditions including reproductive and development problems. The challenge of today is finding how to recover those minerals and materials economically, safely, and in a way that reduces waste and helps the environment.

Most unused phones languish at the bottom of a drawer at home, a phenomenon researchers have described as “mobile phone hibernation”. However, according to the UN Environmental Programme, recycling our mobile phones has the potential to perpetuate a valuable circular resource, generate jobs, and protect human and environmental health.

Re-Sell, Repurpose, Recycle

Just because you no longer want your existing device doesn’t mean that someone else might not want it. It’s worth asking around among friends to see if anyone you know would be interested in having your old handset. Or taking a look on the internet for people in your area who might be interested. The demand for second-hand mobile phones on online marketplaces such as eBay, Craigslist and Gumtree is huge, meaning you can reap a little financial benefit by pulling that old handset out of the cupboard and selling it on. The company reBuy specialises in buying up your old phones (and other electronic devices) and selling them on. Or if you’re feeling generous how about donating it to a Freecycle Network in your area?

Occasionally, companies partner with NGOs or charities and create mobile phone drives, asking people to donate their unwanted phones which are then given to people who otherwise might not have the means of obtaining one, so keep an eye out for these in your area.

You can always donate your mobile phone to Oxfam – either at one of their stores or via their cooperationship with Fonebank – and they pledge to turn the value of it into cash for buying vital supplies. Refugee Phones is a great UK-based campaign that collects unwanted phones, chargers and SIM cards for refugees whose smartphones (aka, their lifelines, and their way of keeping in contact with loved ones back home) have been lost, stolen or damaged on their journeys. And with Against Breast Cancer, recycling your mobile phone will help support breast cancer search.

Women’s and homeless shelters, as well as refugee centres, often accept used phones for their clients – it’s worth enquiring in your local area whether they need any donations right now.

Take-Back Campaigns

Another good first port of call would be to see whether your device manufacturer operates a recycling service in the EU. Some of the larger phone manufacturers provide take-back and recycling services for their products. The world’s three biggest phone manufacturers – Samsung (with its Re+ Program), Apple and Hauwei – all offer this. Motorola and Sony do too. Check out their websites for more information on the services located nearest to you. In general, the electronics handed in are sent to government-approved local recycling plants.

One of the largest campaigns globally is run by Nokia as part of their larger move to encourage mobile phone recycling. People looking to discard their old phones can simply drop them off at one of the 350+ “Nokia Care” centres around the world and Nokia will collect and recycle them.

And Dutch ethically-produced smartphone manufacturer, Fairphone, has also put together a really handy list of organisations across the EU that will take back or recycle your phone.

Cutting Out the Middleman

Some companies bypass intermediaries altogether, setting up their own recycling facilities and means of collection. Deutsche Post has its own partnership with one such recycling plant. ELECTRORETURN is an e-waste dispatch and recycling service that accepts used electronics and helps to dispose and recycle them. Read our article on the specifics of how to use the service across Germany.

Author: Anna Rees

Update: Alex Mitchell (December 2017)

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