The Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) directive, which comes into force in 2004, will require mobile phone producers and distributors to be responsible for taking back and recycling old handsets and accessories in an environmentally efficient way. A new mobile phone recycling scheme that complies with all current and forthcoming legislation was launched at the end of September in a bid to recycle the growing mountain of 15 million mobile phones that are replaced each year in Britain.
Fonebak, created by Shields Environmental, is the world’s first scheme to have the backing of all the network service providers, the Dixons Group’s chains and the UK Government. ‘It’s the first time the whole industry has come together to provide a free environmental solution for its customers,’ says Gordon Shields, CEO of Shields Environmental, ‘but more than that, it’s the first time a whole industry sector has taken responsibility for the products they sell.’
How the Mobile Phone Recycling Scheme Works
Fonebak is an end-to-end recycling scheme, which allows customers to return their unwanted mobile phone handsets and accessories either directly to more than 1,600 retail outlets throughout the UK using in-store recycling containers, or by mail to the recycling centre using a Freepost envelope. Once the handsets and accessories arrive at the Shields facility; the following environmental hierarchy is followed:
• Reuse of components
• Materials recycling
Reuse of Recycling
Phones and accessories are subjected to a segregation procedure, which sorts out the various models and determines whether they are selected for reuse or processed for materials recycling. ‘The phones are segregated depending on whether they are suitable for reuse or materials recycling,’ explains Shields. ‘If they are old models with nickel cadmium batteries, for example, they will go straight for materials recycling.’
Reused Mobile Phones
The phones and accessories selected for reuse go through a repair facility in which they are put through a process of checks and extensive tests. They are then repaired and refurbished, given a warranty, and before being sold to developing markets in Europe, the Middle East, Asia and Africa, re-branded and repackaged using recycled materials. ‘When mobile phones are sold in this country they are sold to certain standards and guarantees,’ says Shields. ‘So our phones are exactly the same as the phones you would receive back from a repair centre.’ Components are also recovered from damaged phones and reused as spare parts.
Recycled Mobile phones
Older phones and those that are seriously damaged are sent for materials recycling, in which the materials are recovered and put back into productive use. These phones are broken down into three elements -the handsets, the batteries, and the accessories and chargers.
Mobile Phone Handset Recycling
The handsets are sent to a specialist recycler in Sweden where they are put through a furnace, in which burning the plastic creates energy to heat the local village, and precious metals, including platinum, gold, silver and copper, are extracted from the phones during the recycling process and recovered for use in things such as jewellery, copper piping and even new mobile phones.
Mobile Phone Battery Reycling
The batteries are graded into nickel cadmium, nickel metal hydride and lithium before being sent to a battery recycler. There are three major recyclers of batteries in the world and Shields Environmental uses a French company called SNAM. Most batteries are now lithium ion types, and currently SNAM is the only recycler that can put lithium back into productive use. However, it could shortly face some competition following the launch of the first battery recycler in the UK, which has contacted Shields Environmental about obtaining its lithium ion batteries.
No longer used in mobile phone batteries, cadmium from older phones disposed of via Fonebak is put back into productive use in power tools. Nickel obtained from batteries can end up being used to make stainless steel for saucepans, and the lithium goes back into the chemical industry, in which it might find its way into new batteries or other chemical components.
Mobile phone Charger and Accessory Recycling
Finally, the charges and accessories are granulated to separate the copper content from the plastic content. The copper is again sent to the Swedish recycler, while the granulated plastic is re-used in traffic management systems, namely traffic cones. ‘We use quite an innovative supplier,’ says Shields. ‘He also supplies Lingfield racetrack with all-weather track, which contains plastic granules.’ Other applications include buckets and horse gallops.
Success of the Mobile Phone Recycling Scheme
The principle of the Fonebak scheme was established more than four years ago, and to date, Shields Environmental has recycled more than one million phones for re-use and thousands of kilos of handsets, batteries, charges and accessories for materials recycling, proving the workability of the scheme. ‘We’ve been working with the service providers and retail chains for a long time, including trialing the scheme with some of them,’ says Shields. ‘We encouraged them to audit the scheme, which proved how solid and secure it was.’
What Proportion of Mobile Phones are Reused and Recycled?
The aim of the scheme is to reuse as many phones as possible, as this has the least impact on the environment. Currently, the scheme reuses 70% of the phones returned, compared to 30% that go for materials recycling. However, Shields envisages that once the old phones from people’s drawers start to be returned - estimated to be some 90 million - the proportion reused and recycled will be around 50-50.
How Well has the Mobile phone Recycling Scheme Been Accepted?
The UK population is perhaps a little reserved when it comes to recycling, so how will the scheme encourage people to return their collection of phones? Incentives will vary from company to company, time to time and by trade-in versus donations. However, before the launch of the scheme Shields Environmental was handling more than 100,000 phones a month, which proves that customers are getting the message. ‘I don’t think there is any incentive or education needed for the consumer,’ says Shields. ‘The UK is behind in (treating) domestic waste because the local authorities have got a lot of work to do, but in commercial waste the UK is a lot better than most countries, and this scheme is one example of that.’
How Many Mobile Phones Still go to Landfill?
So, will anything still go to landfill? ‘Not really,’ says Shields. ‘You will still get a tiny bit going to landfill, such as wet paper or packaging that can’t be treated, but our recycling rate is extremely high.’ As a result of the scheme, Shields Environmental hopes to handle three million phones in the next year to have Fonebak running in at least two European Countries. The scheme has already had a tremendous response from overseas, assisted by the endorsement the scheme received at its launch by UK Minister for the Environment Michael Meacher. ‘I’ve never seen a Minister endorse anything like this before, which has given us all a lot of encouragement,’ says Shields.
While a mountain of unwanted electronic waste still remains, decisive action by Shields Environmental ahead of legislation has provided a viable solution for eliminating the growing numbers of unwanted mobile phones. ‘Our ambition is to set an example in the telecommunications industry that can be emulated by all other industries,’ concludes Shields. Fonebak certainly fulfils that ambition and could potentially eliminate 1,500 tonnes of hazardous waste from potentially damaging the environment each year.