Smartphones are such an important part of our daily lives that we may not think about the elements that go into their construction. Some of the metals needed for smartphones are rare and nonrenewable, which means there’s a very real chance they could run out. The good news is that smartphones can be recycled and those elements saved—and your company can get in on it right now.
A goldmine in our landfills
According to the Yale Environment 360 Report, “despite the high cost and high demand of metals critical for energy technologies, very little of this metal is recycled: in 2009, it was estimated that less than 1 percent of rare earth metals was recovered.” The US Environmental Protection Agency believes that recycling 1 million mobile phones could recover a tremendous volume of rare and precious metals.
Diran Apelian, founding director of the Metal Processing Institute in Worcester, MA, agrees: “There’s something like 32 tons of gold in all the world’s cell phones.” Meaning, “There’s a huge goldmine in our urban landfills,” and an opportunity to decrease our dependency on dangerously mining a finite supply of resources. The problem is: getting individuals and companies to recycle their devices.
A system that regulates recycling
According to Apelian, the most important thing is policy and education: in a study of US recycling rates, the product with the highest rate of recovery was lead-acid batteries, used primarily in cars. (Their recovery rate is 98 percent compared to about 50 percent for aluminum cans). The reason being the government is so worried about lead that they give car companies a financial incentive to recycle the batteries themselves.
Smartphone manufacturers are already thinking along the same lines. In their 2013 People & Planet Report, Nokia outlines its goal to create a “recycling culture,” and its plans to investigate “the drivers and options for recycling locally.” Aware of the realities of this challenge, the company aims to better understand the actions on the ground to find out what it will take to improve recycling networks.
For the time being, the company has set up a process and clear requirements for the use of recycled metals, which aim to increase the ratio of recycled materials significantly. For example, the Nokia C6-01 was the first device in the industry to use recycled metals.
Recycling starts with you
Starting a recycling program at your office can be as simple as putting out a cardboard box to collect phones and other old electronics, and finding a facility to either donate or recycle them. The US Environmental Protection Agency provides an online guide to which electronics can be donated or recycled.
For nonsmartphones and other electronics, Call2Recycle finds local drop-off points for old batteries, and Green Gadgets will match you to recyclers in your area by ZIP code.
The easiest way to start recycling the rare elements in smartphones is to just do it. The payoff—for the planet and the supply chain—will be immense.
Is your office recycling electronics? If not, how do you plan to get involved and start?