As you make plans for spring cleaning this Chinese New Year, consider adding recycling old mobile phones to the list, as you are likely to have more than one unused device lying around the house.
In a report, the international Waste from Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) forum found that more people are likely to keep old mobile phones than recycle them, preventing precious minerals from being harvested.
“People tend not to realise that all these seemingly insignificant items have a lot of value and together, at a global level, represent massive volumes,” WEEE director general Pascal Leroy told the BBC.
Based on data about global trade, the study estimated that 5.3 billion mobile phones would have been discarded in 2022.
The Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission also shed light on the local front through the Handphone Users Survey it carried out in 2021, which polled 1,916 users.
When asked what they did with their old phones, 56.1% said they preferred to keep them, while 20.8% recycled them along with other electrical waste.
The rest sold their old devices once they upgraded (20%), donated or gave them away (16%) and discarded them with regular waste (7.2%).
Only 1.5% of mobile phone users in the survey said they disposed of the device in ewaste bins set up by MCMC at community Internet centres or Malaysian Family Digital Economy Centres (Pusat Digital Ekonomi Keluarga Malaysia or PEDi).
MCMC first introduced its mobile ewaste initiative in 2015, with the goal of educating the public about safely disposing of unwanted or unused devices that have reached their end-of-life.
Despite 74.5% of users saying they were aware that the mobile phones contained toxic substances, only 50.8% of users were aware of the initiative by MCMC to recycle mobile phones as ewaste.
In the report, the regulatory body acknowledged that more effort was needed to publicise its mobile ewaste initiative to encourage users to discard their unwanted devices responsibly.
In 2015, the Jane Goodall Institute established Jan 24 as the International Mobile Phone Recycling Day after observing the negative impact of smartphone consumerism on the primate wildlife population in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
The institute’s researchers explained that rampant mining activities due to the demand for minerals such as cobalt and coltan that are required in the production of smartphones and other electronic devices have resulted in the displacement of gorillas and chimpanzees.
There is also concern that the continued demand for mobile phones will cause further harm to the environment and communities around them.
Recycling is an effective method to lessen reliance on mining since it allows precious metals, such as gold and copper, to be recovered from gadgets and recycled for new versions.
This can go a long way in helping to conserve natural resources. Statistics published by the Environment Department under the Environment and Water Ministry showed that 9,000kg of copper, 250kg of silver, 22kg of gold and 9kg of palladium can be extracted by recycling one million smartphones.
Metals recovered from old phones have also been repurposed for other uses to promote recycling.
A case in point is the Tokyo 2020 Medal Project, which made the Tokyo 2020 Olympics more environmentally friendly by producing all medals from metals extracted from recycling small consumer gadgets like mobile phones.
Donation boxes were placed all over Japan, including at 2,400 stores, for the public to donate used devices.
The effort netted 78,985 metric tonnes of discarded devices, including 6.21 million mobile phones, which were smelted to recover gold, silver and bronze.
However, this is not the first time that medals have been made from recycled materials. The 2016 Rio Olympics awarded bronze and silver medals made from 30% recycled materials.
Hazardous to health
It’s also crucial that electronics and phones are discarded properly, as chucking them into a trash can will likely result in them ending up in landfills, doing more harm than good.
Hazardous materials found in mobile phones, like lead in the solder that holds components in place on a circuit board, pose a risk to the environment.
There are concerns that the lead in old mobile phones that have been dumped in landfills could seep into the ground and pollute water supplies.
The same can be said for substances such as cadmium used in rechargeable batteries and mercury in some LCD panels.
The effects of harmful substances releasing pollution into the environment can be severe.
In 2021, the World Health Organization published a report urging governments and other relevant parties to ensure that ewaste recycling is handled with more responsibility to ensure that it does not affect the health and safety of workers involved in handling ewaste, their families and communities.
Exposure to harmful substances like lead and mercury, it said, could lead to potentially adverse health effects, including an increased risk of chronic diseases and cancer in children.
Marie-Noel Brune Drisse, lead author of the Children And Digital Dumpsites report, cited an example: If a child eats one chicken egg from a waste site in Ghana, he or she will absorb 220 times the European Food Safety Authority’s daily limit for intake of chlorinated dioxins.
High-level exposure to environmental pollutants like dioxin could lead to developmental problems and damage the immune system.
“Improper ewaste management is the cause. This is a rising issue that many countries do not yet recognise as a health problem.
“If they do not act now, its impacts will have a devastating health effect on children and lay a heavy burden on the health sector in the years to come,” she said.
According to the Global E-waste Statistics Partnership (GESP), the accumulation of ewaste is accelerating worldwide.
In the five years up to 2019, volumes grew by 21%, resulting in 53.6 million metric tonnes of ewaste.
To offer perspective, it said that the ewaste generated in 2019 “weighed as much as 350 cruise ships placed end to end to form a line 125km long”.
“This growth is projected to continue as the use of computers, mobile phones and other electronics continues to expand, alongside their rapid obsolescence,” the report stated.
According to recent GESP estimates, only 17.4% of the ewaste produced in 2019 reached formal management or recycling facilities. The remainder was illegally discarded, largely in low- or middle-income nations, where it is recycled by informal labour.
One reason mobile phones are discarded improperly is because the public may not be aware of how or where to dispose of them.
Local initiatives for the disposal of waste can be found on the Environment Department website at ewaste.doe.gov.my, a site dedicated to ewaste management in the country.
It lists registered collection centres and recovery facilities according to state, including information like operating hours, contact numbers and the type of ewaste accepted.
You can also download the MyEwaste app – available on Google Play and the Apple App Store – which has a convenient feature for locating collection centres near you based on the type of ewaste. It also offers descriptions of the hazardous substances found in the devices.
According to the FAQ, some collection centres offer pickup services and may provide incentives for recycling.
MCMC, meanwhile, rebranded its ewaste initiative as Kitar: Old Device, New Breath last year to focus on recycling smaller IT and telecommunication devices. It said in a statement that 125 Kitar collection boxes have been placed at selected PEDi sites nationwide.
Over five tonnes of electronic waste have been collected since the inception of the initiative in 2015.
The revenue it generates from ewaste buyback will be channelled to participating Internet centres, charities and other community-related activities.
According to manager Amira Farhida Badrul Hisham, who oversees operations at the Tanjung Emas PEDi in Muar, Johor, the initiative has received encouraging responses.
“We hope to see more people dispose of their old gadgets in ewaste bins to prevent hazardous materials from polluting our environment,” she said.
To find a PEDi in your area, go to the Jendela.my website. The portal includes an interactive map with addresses and phone numbers for all of the centres across the country.
Furthermore, recycling should not be limited to old phones; it should also include accessories.
Charging cables, for instance, contain silver and copper, and should be disposed of at qualified ewaste centres.
Mobile phone cases made of plastic, on the other hand, are often not accepted for recycling.
“Generally, phone cases are made from non-recyclable materials,” says Khor Sue Yee, director of the non-governmental organisation (NGO) Zero Waste Malaysia.
Zero Waste has set up the Trash Encyclopedia to provide an extensive directory of what items can be recycled.
“We saw a growing awareness and the people were interested in doing their part to reduce ewaste, but they were unsure about how to deal with waste more effectively.
“So, we introduced Trash Encyclopedia as a guide to provide information on how to properly separate household waste with simple steps,” said Khor.
The website also includes a map for users to locate nearby collection or disposal centres and a quiz to test their knowledge on carbon footprints.
Khor also recommends that users give away their old devices to the less fortunate as an alternative to recycling.
“The 5Rs in waste management are refuse, reduce, reuse, repurpose and recycle.
“We also encourage people to consider donating their devices to NGOs that can repair the devices and offer them to needy students,” she said.
There are a few important things to consider before recycling or giving away a phone.
First, ensure that all your data has been backed up, ideally to the Cloud. Both Apple and Google offer free Cloud storage, though with a limited amount of space.
Next, do a factory reset to erase all your data.
Finally, ensure that there are no SIM or memory cards in the device that may contain your personal data before dropping it off at an ewaste centre.
Through proper recycling, over 90% of the materials used in mobile devices and accessories can be recovered and reused, which will help greatly in conserving the environment, according to MCMC.