New handsets will undoubtedly have been a popular choice of Christmas present for many people, and the subsequent January sales will have seen even more of us getting a new smartphone, so what happens to our old phones? Apart from gathering dust in ‘The Drawer’, recycling our phones is an increasingly popular choice.
By the time many of us get round to actually recycling our old phones, we assume they’re obsolete and worthless, but this couldn’t be further from the truth. Afterall, if your old phones had no value, then why do you think there’s such a high demand from charities and businesses?
The truth is that most old mobile phones can easily be refurbished. It’s estimated that only 3-4% of old handsets are beyond economic repair (BER).
When your old phone arrives at a recycling centre, it first goes through a set of rigorous tests, starting by checking its IMEI number in the Central Equipment Identity Centre (CEIR) database to check it hasn’t been stolen or lost.
After that, the components of your old phone such as the keypad are tested. Usually phones are then transported to specialist repair centres.
Recycling BER phones
Even if your handset is Beyond Economic Repair, it’s still valuable. All handsets contain various quantities of metals, including platinum, copper, gold and silver that often end up as jewellery. Your old phone’s batteries contain nickel, which is regularly combined with stainless steel to make saucepans.
The plastic of your old phone is then melted down to create other products, including plastic sheeting and traffic cones. There are companies in the UK that carry out this work, as well as specialists in Sweden and France that operate a zero landfill policy, ensuring that all the parts of your old phone is put to good use.
Out of all the phones that can be reused, only 20% stay in the UK. If you’ve ever received a replacement phone through your insurance policy after losing or having your phone stolen, the chances are you received a refurbished phone.
The other 80% of phones get sent to emerging markets all over the globe to places like Asia, Africa and Russia, where landlines are few in number.
Not everyone agrees with refurbishment
Despite all the positive consequences from refurbishing and recycling phones, some people in the phone industry aren’t happy. Sony Ericsson’s Head of Sustainability maintains that the company isn’t in the business of refurbishment. He argues that there are several unresolved issues in the area as the refurbishment industry has continued to grow over the last decade:
- Some companies don’t take the appropriate care in relation to the risks of batteries and chargers.
- A poor user experience occurs if a company decides to use non-approved parts, brands or illegal software as part of the refurbishment.
The green benefits of recycling and refurbishment
Phone companies such as Motorola and Nokia provide their customers with take-back services everywhere in the world, including South America and Africa.
Even though Greenpeace has ranked Nokia as the greenest global electronic company, it still only recycles between 3 and 5% of its handsets. Presumably the others are either in drawers or landfill sites, leaking toxic waste into the ground.
Whilst it’s great that repair and refurbishment extend the lives of phones and see them being used three or four times by various people around the world, the next step is creating a global take-back process to avoid phones ultimately ending up on the landfill.
Where should we go next?
As consumers, it’s really up to us to ensure the recycling figure is increased. One way to do this and make some money at the same time is to keep your oldest handset as your spare and sell on your newer ‘spare phones’ for a decent amount, or donate them to charity.
Since The Recycling Factory launched in 2005, for example, they’ve managed to raise over £232,940 for the RSPCA.
There are dozens of charities that benefit from the donation of old phones, so you’re sure to find one that you want to support in such a way. You could even start your own appeal for a charity through collecting old phones and empty printer cartridges.
The unthinkable option
However, there is one alternative that offers the greenest path, but will be unthinkable to many of us, and that’s to keep our phone for longer than the standard 12 months. Contrary to popular belief, most phones work fine when they’re over a year old, and only really need replacing when they stop working. Items such as jeans and leather jackets only increase in character with age, and there’s no reason phones shouldn’t do the same.