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Mobile Industry Eyes 5B ‘Dormant’ Phones Sitting in Desk Drawers for Reuse or Recycling

The GSMA estimates that if properly recycled, 5B mobile phones could recover US$8B worth of gold, palladium, silver, copper, rare earth elements and other critical minerals; and enough cobalt for 10M electric car batteries.

More than five billion used mobile phones, currently languishing in desk drawers around the globe, are being targeted for reuse or recycling as the mobile industry aims to develop a more circular supply chain for the smartphones most of us rely on every day.

In a boost to the industry’s circularity ambitions, 12 leading global operators — BT Group, Globe Telecom, GO Malta, Iliad, KDDI, NOS, Orange, Proximus, Safaricom, Singtel, Tele2 and Telefonica — have signed on to a new set of pace-setting targets developed with the GSMA, which represents the mobile industry worldwide, in a project led by Tele2 and Orange. The new goals are designed to accelerate and build upon the work already being undertaken by the mobile industry as it takes steps to move away from the traditional ‘take-make-dispose’ approach to the materials used in mobile phones. Operators are committing to:

  • Increase take-back of mobile phones — By 2030, the number of used mobile devices collected through operator take-back schemes amounts to at least 20 percent of the number of new mobile devices distributed directly to customers.

  • Boost recovery of mobiles and prevent devices going to landfill or incineration — By 2030, 100 percent of used mobile devices collected through operator take-back schemes will be repaired, reused or transferred to controlled recycling organizations.

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Alongside existing commitments such as the operators’ own targets, initiatives and national take-back schemes, this new set of goals is intended to help reduce e-waste, extending the longevity of mobile devices by giving them a second life, as well as recycling materials to be used in new smartphones. A refurbished phone can have 87 percent lower climate impact than a newly manufactured phone. The GSMA estimates that if properly recycled, five billion mobile phones could recover US$8 billion worth of gold, palladium, silver, copper, rare earth elements and other critical minerals; and enough cobalt for 10 million electric car batteries.

“The growing amount of e-waste, including mobile phones, that is generated each year is not only an environmental challenge for our industry, but also a huge loss of potential financial value,” says Erik Wottrich, Head of Sustainability at Tele2. “To promote a more circular flow of resources is a key priority for Tele2, and I am grateful that we can contribute to that priority by leading this GSMA project together with Orange. As the environmental and business benefits of implementing a circular business model are clear, I hope that many more operators around the world will join us in the ambition of zero waste and increased take-back rate by 2030.”

The figures highlight the pool of valuable resources available for reuse or responsible recycling — a tenet around which companies such as Fairphone were built and brands such as Apple are now adopting. Using such materials more consciously and effectively could potentially lower the cost of manufacturing mobile phones, and tackle affordability barriers that are preventing more people from getting online. At the same time, operators recognize that further work is needed to address concerns that stop people from returning handsets — such as data privacy, the need to save precious memories stored on devices, and the desire to keep a spare device.

John Giusti, Chief Regulatory Officer for the GSMA, said: “Most mobile operators around the world are already taking concrete actions to rapidly cut their carbon emissions over the next decade. Moreover, mobile connectivity is playing a major role in helping all sectors of the economy reduce their climate impact — enabling smarter and more efficient manufacturing, transport and building, to name a few. However, mobile operators are determined to go further. We believe in the need to move to a more circular economy to reduce the impact of mobile technology on the environment, and applaud the latest commitments from 12 leading operators to accelerate the transition to greater circularity. In addition to the environmental benefits, more efficient and responsible use of resources could lower costs and make devices more affordable for the unconnected.”

This latest initiative builds on the GSMA’s Strategy Paper for Circular Economy: Mobile Devices, published in November 2022, which lays out a vision for the industry in which devices with as long a lifetime as possible — made with 100 percent recyclable and recycled content, and 100 percent renewable energy — and where no device ends up as waste.

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