According to statistics from the International Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE), up to 5.3 billion mobile phones will end up in landfill this year alone, adding to the already huge amount of electronic waste (e-waste) that pollutes the environment with a wide range of substances, some of them highly toxic.
Estimates based on global sales statistics show that the habit of many people keeping old or broken phones instead of sending them to collection and recycling centres leads to the accumulation of large amounts of e-waste. But this habit, which began around the dawn of the smartphone era, cannot continue indefinitely, as mobile phones left to gather dust in drawers and cupboards end up in increasing numbers directly in the bin.
“People tend not to realise that all these seemingly insignificant electronics are of great value and together, globally, represent massive volumes,” said WEEE director-general Pascal Leroy, referring to the expensive and hard-to-replace raw materials (e.g. copper, aluminium, gold, lithium) that are lost in landfills.
According to current estimates, there are about 16 billion mobile phones worldwide – and in Europe, almost a third are no longer in use.
According to WEEE, the “mountain” of electrical and electronic waste – from washing machines and toasters to tablets and global positioning system (GPS) devices – will grow to 74 million tonnes a year by 2030.
The problem is that, per device, these valuable raw materials are found in minuscule quantities, spread across all sorts of components that include other materials with low recycling value (e.g. glass, fibreglass, plastic, rubber). In other words, e-waste recycling is expensive, especially for small electronics such as mobile phones. And if the profit from recovering the recovered raw materials is below the cost of recycling, no entrepreneur will take on this task on his own initiative.
Currently, just over 17% of the world’s e-waste is properly recycled – but the United Nations International Telecommunication Union has set a target of increasing this to 30% by next year . The organisation points out that e-waste is one of the “fastest growing and most complex waste streams, affecting both human health and the environment because it can contain harmful substances”.