What’s inside your mobile phone and why you may want to recycle them

What happens when you recycle an old phone? Why should you bother?

As e-waste collection bins spring up throughout Australia, there’s a good reason why you may want to fill them.

An estimated 23 million unused mobile phones are gathering dust around the country instead of being recycled.

“Unfortunately Darwin hasn’t got a great record when it comes to recycling e-waste and electronics,” said Glenn Evans of Cool Mob, the sustainable living arm of Environment Centre NT.

The centre has recently compiled a survey about e-waste.

It found that while the majority of respondents bought up to three new electronic products per year, only about half regularly recycled their electronic goods.

Realising I was squarely in this demographic, I took a long-abandoned mobile phone to the centre to find out why they should be recycled.

What’s inside?

A phone, with its cover removed, sits on a table.

After removing the tiny screws that hold the phone together, the face of the phone flips easily upward to reveal some gleaming metals and a fair representation of the periodic table.

Even at 114 grams, the old phone is not quite worth its weight in gold.

It does contain some, but like most of the metals inside it exists only in small quantities.

“There are things like gold and silver in there. You also have copper, aluminium, lead and cadmium,” Mr Evans said.

The metal that allows your phone to vibrate when you receive a message, coltan, is mined in conflict zones in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Mr Evans used this anecdote to suggest that a phone’s parts were far from disposable:

“I think all metals are valuable. They’re non-renewable resources — there’s not an infinite supply of them, so they’re all valuable if you look at it like that.”

Where does it go?

After I drop it off in a phone collection bin, my old phone will embark upon an international journey.

There are no processing plants in Darwin, so the first port of call is a plant in Melbourne, Sydney or Brisbane.

“From there, the parts of the mobile phone get pulled apart and sorted and different components go to different places,” Mr Evans said.

While some metals and plastics can be recycled onshore, Mr Evans said a lot of them travelled to recycling centres in Asia.

“Most of them do end up overseas and generally, I think, they end up in either Singapore or South Korea.”

Glenn Evans sits at a desk in the Environment Centre, working on a laptop.
How do you think more people could be encouraged to recycle old mobile phones? Join the comments.

Can my broken phone be recycled?

Yes, it can be.

Up to 95 per cent of some phones are recyclable, meaning a dead battery or smashed screen won’t prevent your handheld from having a second life.

“Most phone batteries these days are lithium, so that can be recycled and used for new batteries,” Mr Evans said.

“The plastics get turned into things like fence posts, and glass is obviously recycled from the screens.”

Your next piece of gold or silver jewellery could also contain a recycled phone.

Even your next phone could.

“Eventually, we’d like to see a closed loop where a phone doesn’t get made from raw materials but recycled materials, and that itself becomes completely recyclable or repairable,” Mr Evans said.

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