Mobile phone companies step up to recycling responsibilities

May 4, 2007 at 11:46 am

Though every year British people throw away 11.3 million mobile phones, only a third of these people have ever recycled one. There is a huge potential for recycling and reuse here: while British mobile phone users replace their handsets on average every 18 months, the working life of a phone is as much as eight years. Like other electrical devices, the majority of unwanted mobile phones simply end up on landfill sites, leeching the dangerous chemicals found in their batteries into the surrounding soil. In a shocking statistic, the cadmium in one mobile phone battery is sufficient to pollute 600,000 litres of water. Being made of plastic, a mobile thrown on a landfill will take thousands of years to properly decompose and in addition handsets commonly contain precious metals such as gold, platinum, silver and copper.

In an attempt to redress the balance, the five main mobile phone companies – Orange, O2, T-Mobile, Vodafone and Virgin Mobile – as well as the Dixons Group that includes The Link and Currys, have signed up for European wide recycling programme Foneback, run by Shields Environmental. This system is in line with soon to be fully implemented European Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) regulations, which requires companies to be responsible for the successful disposal of toxic chemicals in their products and encourages them to recycle what they can. Recycling handsets could prevent 1,500 tonnes of waste being simply buried in the ground.

The system is extremely simple. Once you have finished with a handset, all you need do is return it to any of the 10,000 retail outlets participating in the scheme. These outlets include every high-street shop that sells mobile phones as well as places like Sainsbury’s and The Body Shop. Either your phone will be added to the stores’ collection directly or you will be given a free-post envelope to send it off. As well as these outlets, you can take your phone to the shops of the 200 charities and local organisations that participate in Community Fonebak project, who receive £4 cash per phone they return or £5 in vouchers for Dixon Group stores.

Once sent to Fonebak, the handset will be safely disposed of in a number of ways. If the handset is in useful working order, they are refurbished and sent out to developing nations to be re-used. In the case of one of the poorest countries in Europe, Romania, previously owned mobiles can retail for a third of the price of a new handset, enabling those with the lowest wages to keep in contact with their friends and families. If the phone is too old or broken, the handset is reduced to its components and each of these is recycled. Mixed plastics, those containing metals, are used in waste-to-energy incineration, where the metals are extracted with almost zero carbon emissions. Metals from this process and the batteries are used to make products like power-tools and saucepans. Other plastics make buckets, garden furniture and traffic cones. Since reuse is prioritised over recycling, the environmental cost can be almost nothing, other that which is incurred in the shipping itself.

In addition, for each phone that it recieves, Vodafone will give £10-20 to the National Autistic Society depending on the handsets potential re-sale value. The National Autistic Society is a registered charity that helps sufferers of autism and their families and carers to cope with this long-term developmental disability.

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