Revolutionary or Detrimental: Managing Mobile Phone E-Waste
From the first mobile phone invented in 1973, mobile technology has progressed exponentially. The transient nature of this industry forces peers and competitors in the market to constantly strive to produce innovations in the blink of an eye. But at what cost?
As rewarding as every generation of mobiles is to the users, the waste generated by the industry is detrimental to a sustainable and safe ecosystem. On average, 40% of Indian users replace their phones within a year due to the high rate of obsolescence in the industry. Mobile phones with faster processors, better cameras and software are introduced in the market on a quarterly basis, and with every model, the designs become thinner, more fragile and comprise of irreplaceable parts. This engenders a need for a new model and the vicious cycle continues.
What Makes Mobile Phones Detrimental?
The manufacturing of mobile phones involves the use of precious metals such as platinum, gold and silver, along with rare earth metals such as gallium, indium, niobium, tantalum and titanium. Elements such as lead, mercury, arsenic and cadmium are also involved in various circuits and parts of a mobile phone, which makes them a potential source of toxic waste if not disposed appropriately1. While most of the waste produced from mobile phones can be recycled, the challenge is to dispose the remaining 10% to 15% that primarily consists of broken glass and different toxic metals that have maximum potential to damage the environment. Disposing mobile phones along with regular waste will have grave effects on the environment.
Regular waste, which comprises of cloth, plastics, paper and wood, is either incinerated or dumped into landfills. If we were to add mobile phones to either, toxic elements will generate flames (incineration) and fumes (landfills) that will impact the health and safety of the environment. The high level of lead coating in mobile phones can also result in adverse health problems to humans. Mobile phones add significantly to the global carbon footprint and are responsible for the emission of millions of metric tons of carbon dioxide annually. In addition, e-waste generated when disposal is managed improperly, i.e. landfilling and informal recycling, adds to the carbon footprint2.
Industry Best Practices
Top global players such as Samsung and Apple have actively engaged in steps toward achieving greater sustainability in their manufacturing process. India is among the highest e-waste generating countries in the world and in April 2019, Samsung India launched ‘Care for Clean India’3, a campaign to raise awareness about the responsible disposal and recycling of e-waste. Under the campaign, it launched the STAR program (Samsung’s take back and recycle) in which obsolete device users can contact e-waste recyclers and schedule a pickup from the comfort of their home, free of cost. After disassembly, the recyclable parts are sent to the manufacturing unit for re-use and the rest are safely disposed. Samsung has opened its doors to recycle e-waste from any brand of mobile phones, not only their own.
Apple expanded their recycling program in April 20184 and its manufacturing facilities across USA include a recycling robot named ‘Daisy’, which is capable of disassembling 15 different models of iPhones at a rate of 200 per hour. It can segregate recyclable parts ensuring a few iPhones even return to sale as refurbished goods. Daisy recovers cobalt, an important battery material, which is combined with scrap metal in the manufacturing unit to make new Apple batteries. It has received nearly 1 million devices through Apple recycling initiatives and each Daisy can disassemble 1.2 million devices per year. In 2018, the company refurbished more than 7.8 million Apple devices and helped divert more than 48,000 metric tons of electronic waste from landfills.
Technological innovation in handheld devices is inevitable and the rate of obsolescence will be even greater in the next decade. But the e-waste it generates can be controlled. The proper disposal of damaged and obsolete mobile phones by disassembling and separating recyclable material and disposing off the rest in an eco-friendly manner can prevent environmental damage. By recycling materials such as plastics — which comprise of 80% of body parts in most of mobile phones — donating older mobile phones to individuals who can leverage them instead of discarding them and leveraging existing e-waste management initiatives instead of discarding obsolete devices are some measures that will ensure mobile phones revolutionize communications without harming the environment.