What Happens to My Old Phone?

One of today’s most common electronic gadgets is the mobile phone. In one generation, we have gone from no mobile phones at all to several billion all over the world. In Sweden alone, some 3.5 million mobile phones were sold in 2019 – at the same time as over 20 million phones are still lying at the back of our drawers waiting to be recycled. But what can be found inside a mobile phone? How do we mine these largely rare metals needed to make them? And how do we recycle the old mobiles that no one uses?

Where do the materials in a mobile phone come from?

The materials needed to make a mobile phone originate from at least twenty countries on three or more continents. The lifecycle of mobile phones has been studied and analysed in order to find out during what part of its life it puts most stress on the environment. The joint conclusion of these studies is that it’s the manufacturing process that really takes a toll on the environment – or strictly speaking the stage before that: the mining of the raw materials.

Complex products call for many different materials, all with their own unique properties. However, obtaining these materials through mining requires a lot of energy and also results in mining waste – according to one study as much as 86 kilos of waste per phone made. Some of the metals in a mobile phone can only be found in a handful of places around the world, often in countries which have no advanced legislation protecting the environment or governing social aspects.

These days, a combination of stricter legislation, customer requirements, new knowhow and technological developments means that progress is being made. All major, well-known brands are now bearing sustainability in mind. For example, in the past few years manufacturers have phased out and replaced some of the more harmful substances hazardous to both people and the environment, such as beryllium, mercury, lead, arsenic, polyvinylchloride (PVC) and brominated flame retardants (BFRs).

Do you want to learn more about the metals you can find in a mobile phone and the challenges involved in mining them? Look no further than the section on Rare Metals.

Did you know?

  • Mobile statistics
  • 1,5 billion mobile phones are sold globally every year
  • 3,5 million of these are sold on the Swedish market
  • 750,000 old or broken mobile phones end up in recycling bins in Sweden
  • 5 years is the median age of the mobile phones collected
  • 2 discarded mobile phones per person still hide in our homes

Mobile Phone Recycling

There is a trend towards using mobile phones for longer before getting a new one. Old mobiles are often sold by one individual to another, or handed in to a store in conjunction with buying a new one. What happens to the part-exchange phone depends on its age and the state it is in. Phones that are still working are examined and then put on the second hand market. In the Nordic countries, there is a market for newer models but older models are sold on to other European countries. The mobile phones that are so old or broken that they have no financial value tend to stay in a drawer or maybe end up in the children’s toy box. Various surveys show that in Sweden alone, between 20 and 25 million discarded mobile phones are lying around in homes and offices, waiting to be recycled.

Take Your Old Mobile to the Recycling Centre!

Old mobiles can be taken to the municipal recycling centre or to other municipal WEEE collection points. You can also hand in your old phone in the store when you buy a new one.

When a mobile phone arrives in a recycling station, it starts off in the category “Other electronics” together with such disparate items as TVs, vacuum cleaners and hairdryers. These products have to be pre-treated before they can be recycled. The object of this treatment is partly to remove any hazardous materials from the products, such as batteries, oils or mercury, and partly to harvest valuable components such as circuit boards, which are put in a separate container. The remaining components are sent for fragmentation, which involves crushing them into small fragments. In this way, what used to be one integrated product is reduced to small piles of plastic, metals and glass.

After the pre-treatment the materials are sent on to different treatment facilities. Some kinds of plastic can be sent for materials recovery, while some go to incineration plants that produce district heating. Plastics containing hazardous substances are incinerated in special facilities where temperatures are extremely high and smoke and gasses undergo several filtering processes. Metals are sent to smelting plants. Smelting components like circuit boards makes it possible to separate different metals.

Read more about recovering metals in the section on Rare Metals.

The contents and materials used vary between different phone models. Below is a list of the contents of a Samsung Galaxy Note 8 with a weight of 195 grams.

  • Contents
  • Plastics
  • Aluminium
  • Iron
  • Copper
  • Cobalt
  • Other

Published 2021-01-26