Environment

Emergency call

Only 1% of the nation’s 640 million mobile phones get recycled

Dead batteries and deadly trash

While iPhones and Ophones may be battling it out as China’s smartphone of choice, the country’s environmentalists have a different challenge: how to dispose of the country’s rapidly growing pile of discarded mobile phones.

As the Economic Information Daily reports: “China’s mobile phone handsets have entered a peak period for replacement, but due to technical and management problems, the level of recycling is extremely low. In short, a large number of discarded handsets are causing environmental problems.”

According to a recent survey by Nokia only 1% of the country’s 640 million mobile phones are being recycled or reconditioned (for second-hand sales). The number of mobile phones in circulation is growing at 10% annually.

The failure to recycle is all the more surprising, given that the value of discarded handsets should be attracting more commercial interest. A tonne of discarded circuit boards nets 130kg of copper, 20kg of tin and 0.45kg of gold. Defunct batteries also contain gold as well as cobalt and nickel.

For China, many of these metals are scarce ones. For example, the nation’s annual mobile phone output accounts for 27% of its cobalt production and 15% of its nickel. So recycling should be highly beneficial.

The survey also showed that people are often unaware of the environmental impact of arsenic, mercury and other toxic metals in thrown-away mobiles.

So what to do? Environmental groups want government regulations to address the problem – especially now that the replacement cycle of mobile phones has shortened from five to three years.

But existing recyclers – where they exist at all – enjoy few economies of scale. Many can’t even make profits when firms like Nokia give them used batteries for free. Worse, some use smelting practices that exacerbate the damage to the environment. Plus there are too few collection centres. Street hawkers still pull together the majority of the recyclable material.

There are some positive signs. For example, China Mobile established a network of ‘green boxes’ in 2008, and managed to recycle 1.35 million units as a result.

But problems remain. First, the public needs to be better informed of the need to recycle. Second, the recycling industry needs to be boosted to viable scale. Third, environmentalists want to see more stringent regulations to limit waste: such as making manufacturers standardise battery types so that older batteries still work with newly purchased handsets.

Reconditioning of used phones should also be stepped up, since poorer, rural consumers would probably buy cheap second-hand phones discarded by more cutting-edge city types.

Like most things in China the scale of the problem is huge.

But industry experts reckon – if properly handled through sensible regulation and proactive industrial policy – the challenges need not be insurmountable.


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