Gold, zinc, coltan and nickel are not the ingredients of some alchemical potion, but the mineral components in a mobile phone. These are non-renewable resources that are squandered because of a mobile phone’s short working life; the French and the Americans change theirs every 18 months on average. However, the real service lifetime of these devices has been established as being between four and seven years, according to the French environment and energy management agency (Agence De l’Environnement et de la Maîtrise de l’Énergie (ADEME)). There is a simple solution to put a stop to this waste – either return a mobile phone to the phone company or to a company that specialises in recycling them.
If the phone is repairable, it will be refurbished and put back on the market, often at a much lower price than a new one (up to 75% less). This recycling reduces the demand on resources because it is the manufacturing process that accounts for most of the environmental impact (80%, according to ADEME). Use of the phone has a much smaller environmental footprint.
© SUEZ ENVIRONNEMENT / William Daniels
If the phone is not repairable, it will be sent to a specialised centre. Toxic substances (lead, mercury, arsenic), contained in particular in the battery, will be identified and treated to prevent them from finding their way back into the environment; a battery can pollute up to 600,000 litres of water. The various materials are recovered and used for the production of new equipment or reused.
Over 1.8 billion mobile phones were purchased worldwide in 2013, but only 3% of them are recycled, according to the UK’s Sheffield Hallam university. Some phones are passed from hand to hand between individuals, but 44% of them end up abandoned in a drawer. More broadly, it is waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE) that is the major challenge; in France alone, one million tonnes of material (the equivalent of twenty-five 40,000 tonne aircraft carriers) are not recovered every year, even though 78-85% of the material in this type of waste can be reused.