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Recyclers, Consumers Blind to Fortunes in Old Phones

Recently, I was astonished to learn there are nearly 49 million old or unused mobile phones left and forgotten in the corners of UK households. What was even more surprising for me was that the commercial value of these items exceeds £1 billion. At the exchange rate of £1 = $1.59, this is $1.59 billion. That is quite a waste of resources, given the difficult global economic climate.

According to new research conducted by CompareMyMobile.com, an independent price comparison Website for mobile phone recycling, 50 percent of UK homes have one unused handset, while 14 percent of households have four or more handsets sitting in the dust in a cupboard.

The picture is not different in the rest of the world either. Australians have a stock of 10 million unused phones. In the US, people replace their cellphones every 18 months, and a total of 100 million cellphones are discarded each year, but only 20 percent of these get recycled. The estimated number of old phones in the US today is around 1 billion. The Chinese renew their mobile phones every 15 months, and only 1 percent of disposed mobile phones get recycled. According to another survey where 6,500 people were interviewed in 13 countries including Finland, Germany, Italy, Russia, Sweden, UAE, Nigeria, India, Indonesia, and Brazil, only 3 percent of the people recycle their phones.

One worrying fact is that most of the discarded phones end up in landfill, as people do not realize the commercial value of old handsets. The truth is that old mobile phones could be worth anywhere between $75 and $150. It must also be remembered that a mobile phone contains valuable rare metals such as gold, platinum, and palladium. To put this into perspective, one ton of handsets contains nearly 300 grams of gold, 150 grams of platinum and palladium, as well as 70 kilograms of copper! Here is another striking fact: The approximately 400 million phones discarded globally yield enough gold content to make 1.5 million gold rings. Therefore, the commercial justification of recycling is obvious.

Besides the financial loss, phones ending up in landfill cause significant concern from an environmental perspective. Mobile phones contain high concentrations of toxic metals such as nickel, mercury, manganese, lithium, arsenic, and cadmium — the seventh most dangerous substance in the world. Such metals are dangerous because they do not biodegrade in the environment and tend to build up in fatty tissue, gradually reaching toxic levels. You can read more about the environmental aspects of mobile phones here. Given all these facts, recycling mobile phones is the only sensible option.

It must be remembered that the majority of a mobile phone is recyclable. The plastic parts that cannot be recycled are burnt to contribute to the energy required for the recycling process. Other non-recyclable parts are ground into chips to be used as construction materials or for road building. This comprehensive process ensures that nothing from a mobile phone ends up in landfill.

If recycling a mobile phone is such a good thing then why doesn’t everyone do it? The reasons vary. Almost half of the population is not even aware that recycling a phone is possible. Over 65 percent of people do not know how to recycle a mobile phone, while over 70 percent do not know where they can get their old mobile phone recycled. Although 72 percent of the people think that recycling helps the environment, 74 percent of consumers never think about recycling their phones.

Here is another figure I find really interesting and would like to share here: If each of the 3 billion mobile phone users brought back one unused handset, 240,000 tons of raw materials could be saved, which yields the same greenhouse gas reduction as taking 4 million cars off the road!

I am sure after reading the above most of you will feel the urge to recycle your unused phones. However, before you do, I must add one important reminder: For peace of mind, make sure you delete all your contacts, pictures, video clips, and other personal information from your old phone before you give it away for recycling. Most recycling centers even provide a service to help you delete your personal data for a range of different brands. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) also provides a guideline for disposing of your old mobile phones, which you may find useful.

While writing this article, I also noticed an old iPaq phone I have been saving for a rainy day for the last two years on one of my dusty shelves. I think I will take it to a nearby recycling centre to clear my shelf — as well as my conscience after having published this piece!

Have you also spotted any unused mobile phones around you, and if so, what are you planning to do with them?

17 comments on “Recyclers, Consumers Blind to Fortunes in Old Phones

  1. Barbara Jorgensen
    September 17, 2012

    I am guilty as charged–have all those old phones sitting around somewhere in the house. Not even in a single location. I will set aside time to collect them and check out the recycling options. I do this for paper, plastic etc.–why not phones?

  2. bolaji ojo
    September 17, 2012

    Show me where I can get actual cash for my one dozen or so old mobile phones and I'll get them there in a flash. As long as it won't cost me more than I raise from the sale! Isn't that why many people won't make the effort?

    Plus, the recyclers probably want to pocket the money raised from recycled phones. I think if recyclers offer a better proposition consumers will send in their old phones. In our society, it comes down to this question: What's in it for me?

  3. prabhakar_deosthali
    September 18, 2012

    That is true. There are no takers who will pay you something worth for your old mobile phones or any electronics for that matter.

    Your old newspapers can be easily sold for about one third the price you bought them . Even your empty beer bottles are easily grabbed by the scrap collectors who pay you something reasonable. Your empty plastic milk bags also carry some value

    But alas!  your pricey and sometimes still working  mobile phones have zero value as far as these scrap collectors are concerned .

    SO you wait for them to become “The collector's item” may be fifty years from now.

  4. Cryptoman
    September 18, 2012

    People should not have to put in too much effort in recycling their phones. In the UK, people simply recycle their trash by using two separate bins: one for recycling one for normal waste. Therefore, the recycling system works well.

    I am thinking that maybe scheduled mobile phone pick up and recycle service maybe a useful way to encourage people to recycle and get paid for their phones. Such pick up service would be arranged via the phone and the consumer would be paid by cash upon pick up. Similar schemes work well for getting rid of old furniture and secondhand household items. I think it would also work well for mobile phones.

  5. Adeniji Kayode
    September 18, 2012

    @Bolaji,

    I still don,t know where you can get to do that.

    Moreover, a recycler  will not strike such deal with you due to the fact that you old phones are going to be regarded as scrap and then on the other hand, depreciation rate on those phones will definitly make a recycler to prefer “charity donation” of your old phones

  6. Adeniji Kayode
    September 18, 2012

    @prabhkar,

    you are right, you just discribed how it goes with electronics generally.

  7. Adeniji Kayode
    September 18, 2012

    I feel the only that can really compensate a consumer is to swap in the old phone for the new at a little amount and the company get to face recycling it.

  8. t.alex
    September 18, 2012

    I realised I still have a very old Nokia e63 and a Htc legend, completely unused. Maybe Nokia and Htc should have some buy back program.

  9. Cryptoman
    September 18, 2012

    Adeniji, that is a good incentive to improve the rate of mobile recycling. At the end of the day, as long as consumers receive a kind of financial gain for bringing their old phones back, that is a good basis for recycling. Since people change their phones often, they will be willing to take the old one back for a discount.

  10. Adeniji Kayode
    September 19, 2012

    @t.alex,

    And at what rate do you think they will buy back from you?

    Except if you don,t mind getting rid of them at all cost.

  11. Adeniji Kayode
    September 19, 2012

    @Crytoman,

    You made a point on that which I feel manufacturers should count on”Consumers change their phone often”

    Except for the fact that Phones don,t sell at the same rate.

  12. Wale Bakare
    September 20, 2012

    I agree with you —recycling scheme works fine in UK at least 70% for papers and other materials. In UK i know of 2 different organizations currently into mobile phones, video games, and other mobile gadgets recycling.  They offer cash payments to buy these gadgets from consumers at least 20% valuation of their original prices, and other factor is condition of the device determines price offer. This is most often publicised in newspapers to inform consumers cash-in on old phones and mobile devices

  13. Wale Bakare
    September 20, 2012

    Which components or parts of  your old phones useful for any redesigning of new device? Do you think these old phones' RF basebands and backends, schematic boards, memory, LCD parts still relevant? If not why are they for recycling?

  14. Ariella
    September 20, 2012

    @Wale I'm sure the recycling figures are much lower in the US

  15. Cryptoman
    September 20, 2012

    The trouble is although functionally much of the RF functionality including the phone module and the antenna, SIM card module etc. can be reused in new phones, this often does not make sense due to the high number of changes needed in the peripheral functions. As a product a new mobile phone needs to evolve constantly to keep up with the fierce competition. Therefore, rather than reusing the existing parts of a design, most of the time it is much more economical and easier to redesign using the existing IPR.

  16. Wale Bakare
    September 20, 2012

    Today, software is becoming a pivotal and driver for innovation that constantly instigates competition amongst the major players in OEM industry. Even though some hardware parts might look very recycleable and reusable however, the aggressive search for emerging materials for new devices for memory and other functional parts of the devices big concern. As you outrightly written — it's economically viable getting a new design as well as new materials, which could give brith to presentable, consumable, eye catching and very efficient smart device.

  17. Wale Bakare
    October 3, 2012

    A recent article reported that ” average price of a recylcle mobile phone broke the 100 pounds barrier, a rise of 68% in a year”. Full research study could be found at http://www.comparemymobile.com

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