Industry hopes to ring in year with more phone recycling

04 Jan 2010Archived News Energetics in the News

PUBLISHED: Sydney Morning Herald by Ben Cubby, A recent, unpublished report written by Energetics Pty Ltd talks about audit results for recycling mobile phones.

MICROSCOPIC wafers of gold, glinting spheres of silver and little bars of baby blue but deadly toxic cadmium. If you could zap yourself down to a millimetre in height and explore the interior of your mobile phone, the journey would be astonishing.

"There is an amazing amount of valuable stuff inside," said Rose Read, the manager of the mobile-phone industry's recycling campaign.

The problem with recycling phones is that so few people seem to want to part with them.
Three-quarters of the population had at least one spare phone handset stashed at home, and a third had two or more unused phones tucked away in cupboards, the Australian Mobile Telecommunications Association said.
Australia's recycling rate for mobile phones is just 8 per cent, despite a 42-cent collection levy added to the cost of every phone, a decade after the national recycling scheme started.

The industry's "MobileMuster" campaign, run on behalf of all big phone manufacturers and providers except Apple, is desperate to see improved results this year, when the computer and TV industries begin their electronic-waste recycling schemes.

Environment groups say that despite slight annual improvements in recycling over the past few years, the phone-industry approach has failed and "cash for cans"-style incentives are needed to give people reason to hand their old handsets back.

Everyone agrees that phones are a treasure trove of rare minerals and recycling them avoids the release of large amounts of greenhouse gases that would otherwise be generated if the metals had to be dug up.

An unpublished study by an emissions audit firm, Energetics, found recycling old Australian phones generates about 1.1 tonnes of greenhouse gas for every tonne of phones, including emissions from shipping them overseas and melting the metals.

Manufacturing the same number of mobiles by mining the ores and transforming them into usable metal generates greenhouse emissions to the equivalent of about 11.8 tonnes of carbon dioxide, the report says.

When recycled, phones are handed in at one of about 3000 drop-off points around the country, mostly in electronics stores. They are then trucked to recycling centres at Wetherill Park in Sydney or Campbellfield in Melbourne, cracked open by hand and sorted into their different components.

The phone circuit boards are among the most valuable components because they contain a few micrograms of pure gold, a few hundred of pure silver, over a metre of finely wrapped copper wire, and a gram or more of lead.

They are sorted by hand and shipped in 20-tonne lots to a factory near Seoul where a firm called Reco Metal melts millions of circuit boards down into their base metals.

The metals are then sold on the commodity market to recoup the financial cost of sorting and transport.
A tonne of old phones yields about 300 grams of pure gold - the equivalent of mining 110 tonnes of ore, says the mobile telecommunications association.

Back in the Australian sorting centres, the phone batteries are picked out and placed in 44-gallon drums before making their own journey to Korea, this time to a processing plant in the city of Busan. The batteries are placed on a grille and slid into a furnace, where the cadmium is melted and turned into ingots.

Cadmium is highly toxic and has been known to leak into water tables if buried in landfill, so recycling is the healthier option.

A battery's ultimate fate depends on its age and type; most of the more modern batteries are lithium-ion batteries, from which the lithium oxide and copper can be extracted and reused.

The older types contain cadmium, nickel, cobalt and zinc. Nickel and iron in most battery types are also melted and reused.

The LCD screens on most modern phones can be processed in Australia, and the glass and plastic shredded and reused. The plastics that make up most of the handset are sorted and shredded here, before being blended with other plastics and turned into fenceposts and pallets.

Steel reinforcement used in some phones is also melted and reused, as are the metals in phone speakers and microphones. About 4.5 million phone handsets have passed through the recycling process since the national scheme began in 1999.

Join the conversation