Speakers’ Corner: Recycling

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The Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) directive has been in force for five years now, but the European Commission tightened rules in January in a bid to increase reuse and recycling rates.

Currently, only around a third of electrical and electronic waste is treated according to legislation. The rest goes to landfills and potentially to sub-standard treatment inside or outside the EU, with illegal trade to non-EU countries widespread.

Redundant mobiles create a percentage of this waste and the scale of the problem is massive. Total worldwide mobile phone ownership is set to top more than three billion this year – approximately one handset for every two people on the planet. With growing demand in the developing world the market shows no sign of reaching saturation.

Each phone sold has an average shelf life of 18 months, which means in just over three years time there will be around six billion redundant phones cluttering up desks and cupboards across the globe.

The majority will find their way into rubbish bins and ultimately into a hole in the ground. A very big hole in the ground – equivalent to a pit the size of Glasgow city centre.

All this adds up to one big environmental headache, one the industry should take more seriously. No one likes over – regulation; it is bureaucratic and  discourages innovation. But if the industry does not start to embrace these guidelines, regulation and policing will get tougher.

The biggest threat to the environment comes not from paper, bottles and cans; it comes from electrical goods. Land filling or incineration of mobiles unlocks dozens of extremely unpleasant substances.

Mobile phones and their accessories, like chargers, contain major concentrations of toxic heavy metals – cadmium, lead, nickel, mercury, manganese, lithium, zinc, arsenic, antimony, beryllium, and copper.

Metals like these are bad news for the environment as they don’t degrade. They seep in to the water table and the food chain, potentially causing serious health problems.

Poisoning by heavy metals is associated with damage to the nervous system, reproductive and developmental problems and a number of cancers. Cadmium for instance is the seventh most dangerous substance known to man.

But throwing away a redundant phone doesn’t just create a potential health hazard. Bring the overall loss of valuable resources into the equation and the story just gets worse. Up to 600kg of gold and silver are being thrown away in Britain alone every year.

One kg of gold and silver can be extracted from every 50,000 handsets that are recycled. With 15 million UK handsets being thrown away that’s gold worth more than £6 million every year.

Gold is used on the circuitry tracking on mobile phones, silicon chips are impregnated with it to prevent rusting, and silver is used on the soldering. Handsets also contain other precious metals such platinum and palladium.

This article appears in Mobile News issue 436 (April 6, 2009).

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