We discard hundreds of millions of mobile phones each year, but their usefulness doesn’t stop there. The humble cellphone can be reincarnated for the greater good
[Article written by Mel Poluck, andpublished in The Review, October 2012]
While demand for the latest smartphones is reaching new heights and mobile technology seems to be advancing weekly, the average lifespan of a mobile phone is less than two and a half years.
According to Gartner, there are more phones entering the market today than there are consumers. Short mobile operator contracts compound the issue and, around the world, some 44% of mobiles languish in drawers or landfill, says a report by Nokia. And yet only an estimated 9% of people recycle their old handsets.
The good news is there are initiatives worldwide that redistribute old phones to people who can benefit from them. Handsets also contain a cornucopia of recyclable materials, so their parts can be reshaped into new products while lessening the impact of mining.
Reuse is straightforward. There are dedicated companies offering payment for your old phone. You simply post it to them and they recycle the parts or refurbish the handset for reuse. Supermarkets and mobile operators offer take-back schemes and charities are becoming increasingly innovative. Some charities, such as fonesforsafety and HopeLine, collect and recondition handsets as emergency-only phones for domestic abuse victims. In Mexico, the Zumbido project connected HIV-positive people using text messages, putting knowledge and support at their fingertips.
But these efforts are only making a small dent in the mountain of excess phones, which has been boosted by the proliferation of the company phone. “When a phone is two or three years old, companies upgrade,” says Emeka Nwadike, International Senior Recycling Manager at EMC, a UK-based company that collects corporate handsets for developing countries.
“There’s still a lot of life in those mobiles,” he says. “When someone’s finished using theirs, it’s a waste product to them. We give it to someone to whom it’s got value. It changes people’s lives.”
One of EMC’s beneficiaries is Maternal and Child Health Advocacy International, which distributes phones to combat mortality rates in Gambia, where 1 in 49 women die during pregnancy or childbirth. Recipients use reconditioned phones to call their midwives if problems arise. “Here, mobiles are fashion accessories. There, it’s life or death,” says Nwadike.
Demand for mobiles is rising in developing countries where people are increasingly reliant on them, and not just for keeping in touch with friends. In isolated or poor communities, they are a lifeline: they disseminate farming and healthcare information and are even used for banking. The impact on developing economies is also compelling. For every additional 10 mobile phones per 100 people, gross national product rises by 0.5%, according to the London Business School.
But no matter where old mobiles end up, one thing is for certain: any handset destined for reuse must be wiped clean of data . If uncleansed mobiles fall into unscrupulous hands, the consequences could be damaging for the former owner. If that device had corporate or government origins, the outcome could be catastrophic.
The fact that smartphones now have huge memory capacity of up to 64GB only reinforces the importance of deleting data. “Lots of companies don’t see mobiles as important as computers,” says Nwadike. “They’ll pay for a service to erase data and destroy computers, but not for mobiles. Yet data is more important than anything.”
Once it has been cleansed of data, a phone is ready for its new life. “Phones tend to be metal-rich and dense, perfect for recycling,” says Steve Skurnac, President of Sims Recycling Solutions in the Americas. Almost 100% of the handset can be recycled: the precious metals they contain (silver, gold and rare iridium), keyboards, screens, lenses, microphones, speakers and printed circuit boards. Sims sends extracted plastic to manufacturers in China, for example, where it is reincarnated as other consumer products.
While there is no global standard to regulate e-waste disposal, legislation does exist. It’s patchy in the US – 26 of 50 states have some kind of e-waste regulation. In Europe, from 2016 the Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) directive will require EU members to collect 45 tons of e-waste for every 100 tons of electronic goods put on sale during the previous three years. And China and Japan have recently launched initiatives aimed at reducing electronic waste, as has India.
“The challenge is getting the quantity of mobiles that makes sense and providing convenient ways for consumers to send them in,” says Skurnac. “There’s a lack of communication in the marketplace.”
The capability of smartphones is astounding and it’s no surprise that users are quick to ditch their older models. But take a moment to think about what could become of your old phone once the upgrade comes along, and you will realize there’s a treasure trove of opportunities behind that little screen.
A lifeline for mothers in the DRC
Old phones are being used to support two maternal care centers in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), where one woman in 24 will die during pregnancy or childbirth.
Every Mother Counts, a US-based charity founded by model and activist Christy Turlington, has joined forces with the Hope Phones campaign to turn discarded phones into funds for two maternal care centers in Kinshasa and eastern DRC.
When Hope Phones receives a donated handset, it recycles the materials – which can include toxins such as lead, nickel, beryllium and cadmium – and turns the money into equipment and training for the centers.
Every Mother Counts and Hope Phones say that 10,000 recycled phones will raise enough money to buy mobile phones, training, laptops, modems, solar chargers and network airtime for the two centers. Considering that US citizens alone discard 500,000 phones every day, the potential for this and other initiatives is huge.
It’s just one example of how the western world’s hunger for the latest gadgets can result not in overflowing landfills, but in potentially life-saving initiatives in the developing world.
Mothers get the message in Ghana
An innovative scheme in Ghana uses cellphones to improve the quantity and quality of care for expectant mothers and newborn babies