Clean Tech

Saving mobiles from the trash can

Preeti Mehra | Updated on March 26, 2019 Published on March 26, 2019

A look at practices followed globally to deal with discarded cell phones

How are countries coping with the challenge of discarded mobile phones? Especially when manufacturers are artificially reducing the lifespan of products so that consumers have to frequently go in for new models?

In the US, the average age of a mobile phone is known to be 21 months, though reports in 2018 suggest that Americans have started hanging on to their phones for longer periods. Recycling is also now preferred to throwing devices into the trash can. Companies too offer cash if consumers drop off their phones for recycling, irrespective of whether it works or not. Unwanted mobiles are sent to recycling centres which refurbish the ones in good shape and donate them to organisations working for vulnerable groups such as needy women and senior citizens. Unusable mobiles are dismantled, with the components and metals going back to the manufacturers. However, despite this effort, a large number of phones still land up in the trash.

The European Union has been more pro-active in finding a way out of the e-waste generated by cell phones. According to a New York Times article, the EU has worked out a model for industrial regulation that shifts the burden of safe product disposal back to the manufacturers that produce electronic goods.

Through a directive on waste electrical and electronic equipment, it makes sellers of electronic goods accept, free of charge, any of the used products brought in by customers for recycling. The EU’s aim is to recycle 85 per cent of its e-waste in a desirable manner by the end of this year.

Japan too has mandated manufacturers to have their own recycling facilities or develop a third-party arrangement for recycling electronics goods. One of the innovative projects taken on by the government is to produce gold, silver and bronze medals for the 2020 summer Olympics out of metals extracted from discarded phones and appliances.

Media reports suggest that the Olympics Committee is expecting to collect nearly eight tonnes of metal for around 5,000 medals that would be needed for the Olympic and Paralympic games. It has been asking citizens to donate for the purpose and has placed collection boxes in stores, offices and public places. Japan’s decision is also based on the recommendations for the 2020 Olympics to move towards increased sustainability.

China’s efforts

Of late, China, which has a poor track record with e-waste, has been trying to promote a circular economy. In the past, soil levels of toxic metals at electronics disposal sites in China were measured to be between 10 times and 100 times greater than normal levels of toxic metals in soil, but the country is moving to better the situation.

A Greenpeace East Asia report out last week says that “E-waste is the fastest growing waste stream in China, and it is rich in precious metals. Generally, the three key criteria to build a functional circular economy are supply of used products, demand for recycled materials, and open lines to transport materials. China has all three in abundance…. E-waste from computers, mobile phones, and other electronics will reach 15.4 million tonnes by 2020 and 27.22 million tonnes by 2030, growing at an average annual rate of 10.4 per cent.” The report points out that the value of metals discarded as electronic waste in China will total $23.8 billion by 2030, a sum that can be reclaimed through recycling and urban mining at cheaper costs than retrieving the same amount of metals through virgin ore mining.

India’s private sector has also initiated discarded mobile buy-back projects, but this is at a nascent stage. In fact, the dismantling of phones in the unorganised sector is huge and poses serious health problems for workers and the environment. Illegal imports of e-waste are also proving to be a further challenge.

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Published on March 26, 2019
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