Because people are replacing their electronics at accelerating rates, there has been a proliferation of electronic waste worldwide. Some companies, such as Nokia, have started programs to recycle cellphones and to reclaim valuable materials hidden in electronic waste.
More than 130 million cellphones are thrown away every year in the US. Seventeen-thousand tons of electronic waste are generated every day, most of which is simply tossed. Besides the environmental implications of this behavior, recovered electronics can yield valuable recyclable materials. One million mobile phones can yield nine kilograms of palladium, 24 kilograms of gold, 250 kilograms of silver, and 9,000 kilograms of copper. Nokia says that up to 80 percent of the content of its cellphones are recyclable. (See Infographic: E-Waste – Where Does it All Go?)
Data from the United Nations Environment Program indicate that total e-waste generated worldwide rose from 6 million tons in 1998 to an estimated 20 million to 50 million tons in 2005. UNEP Asia Pacific regional director Park Young-Woo was quoted as saying that the volume of e-waste is increasing by 40 percent per year worldwide.
Though e-waste recycling and reverse supply-chain programs
aren't easy, that shouldn't deter the industry from embracing them.
A 2012 paper
by Pia Tanskanen discusses the challenges associated with getting people to recycle their cellphones and what Nokia has been doing about it. The two main challenges are getting the word out that cellphones can be recycled, and then making it easy for people to do so.
A Nokia consumer survey cited by Tanskanen showed that less than 10 percent of people have recycled their old mobile phones and that close to 50 percent were unaware that it is possible to recycle them. Two thirds said they did not know how to recycle an unwanted device and 71 percent were unaware of where to do it.
Electronics recycling can't piggyback existing programs: It needs to be collected separately. Different schemes are available: The consumer can take the material to a collection point or collection boxes can be placed more conveniently. But as the Tanskanen paper points out, the added convenience to the consumer increases the complexity of the logistics for the collector.
The Finnish experience
Nokia started a recycling program in India in 2008 during which the company placed over 1,400 secure bins at Nokia service enters and retail stores. A reverse logistics system was developed for the collection of the phones from the drop-off points and shipping them to a recycling company. Nokia also fielded a text-message app that helped consumers identify the nearest recycling location.
The program was first launched in four cities -- Bangalore, New Delhi, Gurgaon, and Ludhiana -- for 40 days in 2009 and was later rolled out to an additional 28 cities. The company publicized the program on billboards, in radio and print media, and with celebrity endorsements. Nokia also promised to plant a tree for each device collected.
Over 50 tons of phones and accessories were collected in India during the first two and half years years of the program. By summer 2011, Nokia had planted over 90,000 trees.
More recently, Nokia ran a small campaign in Kampala, Uganda in 2010, which yielded the collection of one-thousand items in two days. Nokia ran radio ads to publicize the campaign and also entered all participants in a raffle. The Uganda program encouraged Nokia to introduced new recycling programs in Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Uganda, Sri Lanka, Uruguay, Pakistan, Panama, Belarus, Bosnia, Malta, and Ukraine. One recent report indicated that its program in Nigeria was not going as well as expected.
Build it, they will recycle
The Indian program has been deemed a success, however, and as Taskanen pointed out, it highlighted insights on recycling behavior. "An important conclusion is that people will start recycling if they are provided the right information, and it is easy for them to recycle," said the paper.
While this may seem self-evident, companies seeking to emulate Nokia's programs will have to put a fair amount of thought and resources into their execution. But keep in mind that these programs can yield social benefits, by helping the environment; intangible benefits to the company in the form of positive publicity and the generation of goodwill; as well as some cold hard cash.