Mobile phones are everywhere and many people cannot conduct their day-to-day business without them. 205 million people in the USA alone use a cell phone. The mobile phone sector is progressing very rapidly and due to this, coupled with shrinking initial costs, people are upgrading phones at a similarly rapid rate. Currently, the average lifespan of a mobile phone in a developed country is around 2 years, and this is ever decreasing. This means that millions of mobile phones are thrown away every day, and ‘e-waste’ (electronic waste) is the world’s fastest growing waste material.
The issue with this is two-fold. Firstly, mobile phone that are simply thrown into landfill are an environmental hazard because of the chemicals they contain, which can leach into groundwater systems and affect local ecosystems and potentially drinking water. Secondly, consigning mobile phones to the trash is a huge waste of resources, as each phone contains rare and precious metals. Though the quantity of metal in a single phone is small, the total amount thrown away is huge. For example, a tonne of mobile phones can contain 300 grams of gold, compared to an average tonne of gold ore which contains 5 grams of gold. It is thought that around 70% of all heavy metals in USA landfills come from mobile phones.
What Do Mobile Phones Contain?
Mobile phones are complex machines and as such contain a lot of varied materials that can be reused. It is estimated that up to 80% of a mobile phone can be reused.
The most valuable commodities held within phones are precious metals such as gold, silver and platinum, which are contained within the circuit board.
The mobile phone battery also contains many useful commodities, and this can be recycled too, though usually separately. Batteries contain a useful amount of copper, as well as rarer elements such as cadmium. Nickel can also be found in the battery of the phone, which can be turned into stainless steel. Palladium, aluminium, lithium and lead are also all present in mobile phones.
How Can I Recycle a Mobile Phone?
Recycling a mobile phone has become extremely easy in recent years. Many supermarkets, online companies, charities and mobile phone shops will be glad to take an unwanted mobile phone for recycling.
This first handset recycling company was ‘Fonebak’, launched in 2002. The majority of networks and phone shops are now associated with this scheme. Since this time, many similar companies have been formed, including envirofone and mazuma. If the phone goes back to the network, the company will usually make a charity donation after the recycling process.
Supermarkets, including Asda, Tesco, and Sainsbury’s, will often provide prepaid envelopes for you to use in sending your phone to be recycled. These supermarkets will also offer other incentives to do this, such as points on loyalty cards.
Before the phone can be taken away, you must:
- Remove any PIN numbers or passwords
- Remove your SIM card
- Leave the battery in and the back on the phone
The Recycling Process
In many cases, companies will endeavour to reuse the old mobile phone in another part of the world, often in developing countries. This ensures that the phones do not immediately end up in the trash if they are still usable.
Before phone handsets are recycled, batteries are taken out and sent elsewhere for recycling. The phone is then shredded and heated to around 1100C.
Samples are then turned into dust and undergo further chemical processing, before being taken to a smelter which takes out the relevant metals for reuse.
To recover plastics from the phone components, energy-from-incineration is used. The plastic of the phones outer body is usually granulated at then reformulated and used in mouldings.
Other parts of the phone that can be recycled include:
- Battery connectors
- Printed circuit boards
- LCD screens
In Europe, the recycling of mobile phones falls under the WEEE directive, however there is no such initiative in the United States currently. The Basel Convention, which outlines environmental end-of-life management for mobile phones, is also upheld by many phone manufacturers.
Sources and Further Reading