Thinking green, by Caitlin

Thoughts and ideas on environmental topics from Caitlin Howlett, editor of Green Lifestyle.

Sitting on a mine

Mobile-story

At the time this photo was taken, G had collected the 22 phones pictured for recycling – however we did get three late additions that we weren't going to turn our nose up at, so overall we recycled 25 mobiles from our office collection.

Credit: Suzanne Chellingworth

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There's 22 million of them sitting in drawers around Australia, and they're full of valuable materials. In fact, 54 per cent of us keep them even if they're not working.

They're our old mobile phones, and they're full of precious metals, and some toxic ones too. Over 90 per cent of the materials in mobile phones can be recovered and used as raw materials for new products.

That's why G decided to challenge all our readers to recycle them, plus we did a collection around the office to see how many old mobile phones we could save from our dark drawers and cupboards.

Overall we collected 25 phones, their chargers and any associated wireless devices for recycling with MobileMuster. From our efforts, we saved just over half a kilogram of gold ore from being mined, and keeping around half a kilogram of cadmium from the batteries out of landfill (where it's very dangerous for the environment). Our recycling efforts also saved four black balloons (50g each) of carbon dioxide-equivalent gases from entering the atmosphere; the same as taking a car off the road for four days. And it was so easy!

As you read this, our old phones are being dismantled, their plastic casings taken off and SIM cards taken out, ready for the core parts to be recycled. But it's a much more complicated process than just recycling an aluminium can, and each component is tracked and traced along the way.

The plastic casings can't be burnt or incinerated as they release poisonous dioxins. Instead, they're sent for recycling to an Australian company where they're made into fancy, rust-free and durable fence posts.

For the core materials, there are no processing facilities in Australia, so the phones will have to be shipped offshore. It's hoped that now the government's computer and television recycling scheme is in, that there'll be enough capital to start up a recycling facility here.

All the core parts are sent by sea; cadmium from older batteries is sent to Korea to make new batteries, and lithium ion batteries - which are now 80 per cent of batteries in mobiles - are sent to Singapore to recover the cobalt to make more batteries. The casings of batteries are made of nickel, which is valuable once processed to make stainless steel.

The cost of processing the phone isn't cheap, so it's funded by a levy on new handsets that come into the country. The overseas companies that take the precious materials are allowed to sell them into the commodity market to make a profit off them.

If your old phone still works, and is less than four years old, you might like to sell it on mobile resale sites, such as Cash for Phones, Mazuma Mobile, or Money4Mobiles, who resell the old phones to developing countries for a profit. There's details on these sites on how to delete all your personal data, so you don't have to worry about privacy, however it's worth bearing in mind that your phone might still eventually end up in landfill in it's new owner's hands.

Most copies of the current April/May issue of G magazine had a slip inserted thanks to Clean Up Australia so readers could recycle their old mobile phones for free, providing a $3 donation for every phone sent in. These phone will either be reused to prevent the need for virgin materials for a new phone, or recycled so it's components can be recovered.

So go on, dig through your drawers and recycle your old mobiles! Download a prepaid MobileMuster label as a PDF here.