What Happens to Old Mobile Phones?

Monday, November 15th, 2010 at 3:10 pm

The continual rise in mobile phone buying and disposal is causing concern globally and education and awareness raising are key ways to slow this growth.

People can make a difference now by wise choices when disposing of their mobiles and other electronic products.  In the US 85% of e-waste is just discarded with the rubbish and in many states this is still legal.  What many consumers may not know or care about is that e-waste contains toxic substances that can leach into groundwater, or be emitted from incinerators.  Many products such as mobile phones contain valuable materials that can be recovered and the opportunity to recover these is lost when they are disposed in landfill.

Recycling is a far better option, but many mobile phone recycling companies don’t actually do much recycling.  Instead, they export the old phones to developing countries, where they are broken down in very dangerous ways that cause harm to the people involved.

Proper recycling involves dismantling mobile phones and separating the materials that can then be sold on in the recovery markets. Reusable products, components or parts can be refurbished or repaired and then sold.  Some recyclers just cream off the most valuable items such as smart phones and then sell the rest to a waste trade broker.  These products end up in developing countries where metals are recovered in a hazardous way, usually by smashing the phones open.  Circuit boards are heated to melt the solder to recover the lead and the workers involved breathe in lead fumes.  Acid is poured on the circuit boards to recover gold and other precious metals.  The plastics are burnt and the workers breathe in the dioxin-filled poisonous fumes.

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