Mobile industry eyes five billion ‘dormant’ phones sitting in desk drawers for reuse or recycling

More than five billion mobile phones, currently sitting unused and unloved in desk drawers around the globe, are being targeted for reuse or recycling as the mobile industry aims to develop a more ‘circular’ supply chain for the smartphones most of us rely on every day.

In a boost to the industry’s circularity ambitions, 12 leading operators around the world have signed up to a new set of pace-setting targets developed with the GSMA, which represents the mobile industry worldwide, in a project led by Tele2 and Orange.

The new goals are designed to accelerate and build upon the work already being undertaken by the mobile industry as it takes steps to move away from the traditional ‘take-make-dispose’ approach to the materials used in mobile phones. Operators are committing to:

Increase take-back of mobile phones

By 2030, the number of used mobile devices collected through operator take-back schemes amounts to at least 20% of the number of new mobile devices distributed directly to customers.

Boost recovery of mobiles and prevent devices going to landfill or incineration

By 2030, 100% of used mobile devices collected through operator take-back schemes will be repaired, reused or transferred to controlled recycling organisations.

Alongside existing commitments such as operators’ own targets, initiatives, and national take-back schemes, this new set of goals is intended to help reduce ‘e-waste’, extending the longevity of mobile devices by giving them a second life, as well as recycling materials to be used in new smartphones.

A refurbished phone can have 87% lower climate impact than a newly manufactured phone. The GSMA estimates that if properly recycled, five billion mobile phones could recover USD 8 billion worth of gold, palladium, silver, copper, rare earth elements, and other critical minerals, and enough cobalt for 10 million electric car batteries.

The figures released today highlight the pool of valuable resources available for reuse or responsible recycling. Using such materials effectively could potentially lower the cost of manufacturing mobile phones, and tackle affordability barriers that are preventing more people from getting online. At the same time, operators recognise that further work is needed to address concerns that stop people from returning handsets, such as data privacy, the need to save precious memories stored on devices, and the desire to keep a spare device.

John Giusti, Chief Regulatory Officer for the GSMA, said: “Most mobile operators around the world are already taking concrete actions to rapidly cut their carbon emissions over the next decade. Moreover, mobile connectivity is playing a major role in helping all sectors of the economy reduce their climate impact, enabling smarter and more efficient manufacturing, transport, and building, to name a few. However, mobile operators are determined to go further. We believe in the need to move to a more circular economy to reduce the impact of mobile technology on the environment, and applaud the latest commitments from 12 leading operators to accelerate the transition to greater circularity. In addition to the environmental benefits, more efficient and responsible use of resources could lower costs and make devices more affordable for the unconnected.”

Philippe Lucas, EVP, Devices and Partnerships, Orange, said: “This initiative underlines the significant momentum under way in the operator community to boost decarbonisation and the circular economy and we are proud to be part of it.

“It is only by working collectively that we can succeed, hence why Orange is playing a pivotal role in driving device longevity in the smartphone ecosystem, working with hardware and OS  providers alike. Initiatives like these underscore our unwavering commitment to a sustainable future and will support Orange’s mission to attain net-zero carbon emissions by 2040.”

Erik Wottrich, Head of Sustainability at Tele2 said: “The growing amount of e-waste, including mobile phones, that is generated each year is not only an environmental challenge for our industry, but also a huge loss of potential financial value. To promote a more circular flow of resources is a key priority for Tele2, and I am grateful that we can contribute to that priority by leading this GSMA project together with Orange. As the environmental and business benefits of implementing a circular business model are clear, I hope that many more operators around the world will join us in the ambition of zero waste and increased take-back rate by 2030.”

This latest initiative builds on the GSMA’s Strategy Paper for Circular Economy: Mobile Devices, published in November 2022, which lays out the following vision for the industry:

Devices with as long a lifetime as possible, made with 100% recyclable and recycled content, 100% renewable energy, and where no device ends up as waste.

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