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Recycling of Mobile Phones Crucial for EU Circular Economy

On 16 September 2016, a study partly funded by the European Commission uncovered that approximately 50% of the gold used in mobile phones is not recovered for future use. It also recommended steps in order to achieve a global circular economy for mobile phones, such as improving in developing countries the recycling of precious metals in mobile phones, extending their lifespan, and improving their collection after use.

In a circular economy, the aim is to reduce waste and to maintain resources for future and repeated use. Achieving such an economy is essential to meeting the goals of the EU Action Plan for the Circular Economy, which is a part of the EU’s Circular Economy Package introduced by the European Commission in December 2015. The Package includes revised legislative proposals on waste which are designed to stimulate Europe's transition towards a circular economy and boost global competitiveness, sustainable economic growth and generate new jobs.

The study highlighted that electrical and electronic equipment waste was one of the fastest growing sources of waste in the world, increasing from 20 million tonnes in 1998 to 41 million tonnes in 2010. The European Commission has estimated that between 17-20 kg of electronic waste per year is produced by the average EU citizen, of which mobile phones represent a significant amount.

The study stressed that the management of mobile phone waste constitutes a global issue since it requires the involvement of a whole range of actors, including consumers, producers, refurbishers, collectors, and recyclers, in order to be successful. Divergences in the capacity and governance of recycling between industrialised economies, which are better equipped for this purpose, and emerging economies, which are generally importers of mobile phones, make effective recycling even harder to achieve, the study concluded. Another problem is the lack of proper collection mechanisms which causes consumers to dump their unused phones or store them for long periods of time.

Since gold represents around 80% of the overall metal value in mobile phones, the study set out a model on stocks and flows of gold in mobile phones in order to analyse and reduce the losses of gold from the loop. This would constitute an important attempt to achieve effective recycling of phones and to enhance the implementation of the circular economy policy.

Specifically, the study presented a model based on two indicators, namely the ‘loop-leakage’ and the ‘loop-efficiency’. Referring to data used in past studies, these indicators were used to evaluate how much gold was leaving the system and how much gold was utilised. For this purpose, the study came up with precise suggestions for an eco-cycle system, for example:

  • Increasing the life-span of a mobile phone by implementing resource conservative manufacturing and allowing for the replacement of obsolete, damaged, or expired components;
  • Improving collection mechanisms by investing further in their organisational, technical and sectoral implementation;
  • Incentivising consumers to shorten the period for which they may store an unused mobile phone; and
  • Improving informal recycling in developing countries which at present has been responsible for low resource recovery and high leakage.

On the other hand, the study determined that other considerations, such as manufacturing cost, export cost, functionality of refurbished phones, and metal processing, had negligible effects on the loop leakage and loop efficiency.

Concluding that the current status was unsustainable, and that loop efficiency will decrease to 16% by 2050, the study suggested an approach of “extended producer responsibility”. This approach would require producers of mobile phones to pay for the social and environmental cost of production, thereby incentivising them to design phones with better recycling characteristics and longer life-spans. The Commission will no doubt look deeper into this conclusion when proposing future changes to EU environmental legislation, as part of its Circular Economy Package.

Content provided by Picture: HKTDC Research
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