The Long Tail of Mobile Phone Recycling

Green initiatives seek an end to e-waste

There’s a growing and very encouraging trend in the mobile phone industry, and consumer electronics more broadly, as companies start to pay more and more attention to sustainability and recycling. But there’s definitely a lot more work that the industry needs to do to lessen its burden on the environment.

This trend has manifested itself in numerous ways, from the use of ethically sourced raw materials and components, to eco-friendly packaging that avoids single-use plastics.

Another initiative, recently adopted by Apple, is the removal of some accessories that come in the box when you buy a new gadget. This brings multiple benefits that not only help to reduce the number of unwanted chargers, cables and headphones languishing in drawers and cupboards, but also minimize the size and weight of the packaging. This is important for lowering the carbon footprint of freight transportation.

Of course, I’m not naive enough to believe that makers of consumer electronics are getting rid of chargers and headphones purely because of their concern for the environment. Manufacturers clearly stand to gain by not supplying accessories, but nonetheless, they should be applauded particularly if they complement this with other supporting programmes. For example, they can offer discounted chargers to consumers that need them and launch swap-out programmes to upgrade old chargers with more energy-efficient variants. It’s disappointing that few manufacturers have taken this next step to really prove the veracity of their environmental credentials.

CCS Insight estimates that 18 billion mobile phones have been sold cumulatively over the past decade. In 2020 alone, about 1.5 billion devices are expected to be sold — that’s about 48 phones per second! It’s imperative that the industry does all it can to ensure this enormous number of devices are disposed of as responsibly as possible.

The magnitude of the problem is painfully clear from these statistics from the United Nations. The organization estimates that right now, only 20% of electronic waste is recycled, and expects that by 2050 global e-waste will double to 111 million tonnes a year. And even more worryingly, the European Economic and Social Committee estimated in 2019 that only between 12% and 15% of mobile phones are properly recycled in Europe. We need to urgently build a sustainable circular economy.

An obvious answer is the burgeoning market for second-hand devices, which is becoming increasingly popular thanks to trade-in programmes offered by phone-makers such as Apple and Samsung, as well as network operators, retailers and dedicated companies in this field, including the likes of musicMagpie and PCS Wireless.

But this only solves part of the problem as these handsets will eventually need to be disposed of. The good news is that there’s a growing number of companies that are able to recycle mobile phones, and that take a much more comprehensive approach focussing on the various stages of the journey: recovery, redistribution and recycling of consumer electronics devices. In the case of mobile phones, this not only includes the handsets themselves but all the other bits that come in the box, like headphones and chargers.

A good example of a company that’s doing its part is Genuine Solutions. I was lucky enough to make a (socially distanced) visit to its headquarters recently, and it was great to learn more about what I’m referring to as “the long tail” of mobile phone recycling.

Genuine Solutions collects mobile phones, their accessories and other associated products in 16 countries around the globe, and then processes the “waste” in several ways. Its goal is to have 100% reuse with zero landfill. It’s a commendable strategy that involves what I would call “extreme recycling”.

Often when a phone is traded-in the charger gets tossed to one side as the real money in second-hand trading lies in the phone. Genuine Solutions collects the chargers and rather than just dismantling them and recycling the elements, in some cases it repackages the chargers and sells them back into the open market. At its peak, the company processes some 10,000 phones and more than 200,000 chargers, cables and other accessories every month.

Another example is how the company deals with broken phone screens and other device repairs. These are collected and then stripped of components such as earpieces and microphones, which can be used to refurbish faulty phones. It’s a circular economy approach to a real-world problem.

The scale of the operation is more impressive when you consider that over the past few years the company has dealt with more than 8,000 tonnes of products and processed millions of mobile phones and chargers.

This is the direction that we as an industry need to follow. I hope that the “recover, redistribute and recycle” mantra becomes ingrained in all companies involved in the communications sector and more widely in consumers electronics all over the world.