Since the Earth Summit in Rio in 1992 there has been a steady increase in efforts world-wide to move the global human society towards environmental, social and economic sustainability. The growing evidence of rapid climate change has helped gather momentum. However, pulling strongly in the opposite direction is the relentless growth of consumerism, fuelled by rapid technological progress.
This is acutely evident in the use of cellphones mobile phones in the UK. The growth in global use has been exponential. In 1990 there were just over 11 million subscribers worldwide and this has risen to 5.3bn in 2011 (77% of the world’s population). The advent of smart phones and frequent releases of new models with ever-improving functionality has created a pattern of constant upgrading and discarding of older models well before the end of their useful lives. This has created huge challenges to achieving a sustainable future.
The response from Governments, businesses and consumers has varied around the world. Legislation has been introduced in many developed countries aimed at controlling the disposal of electronic waste. In some countries there has been encouraging growth in cellphone recycling and re-use. This has changed the mindset of many users. Instead of casually discarding old phones in a drawer or, even worse, the trash, many are selling their handsets to recycling companies and putting the cash towards a new model. Recyclers usually market themselves online and competition is fierce. Used iPhone4s can fetch between $200 – $275 depending on model and condition.
By avoiding contaminating soil and groundwater with dangerous chemicals and other toxic materials from cellphones that would have otherwise have ended up in landfill, recycling improvements superficially give the impression that real progress is being made towards sustainability. However, what happens to old cellphones sold to recyclers very much depends on their age and condition. Recent handsets can easily be refurbished and sold on for re-use, often in the developing world. Older phones may be broken down and precious metals and other valuable materials recovered for re-use. For instance, certain plastics may end up being re-manufactured into traffic cones.
A major concern is when cellphones sent to developing countries reach the end of their working lives. Controls on disposal and recycling vary greatly. In some locations electronic waste is dumped and poor people eke out a living by retrieving precious metals like gold in hazardous ways. Phones are smashed open and circuit boards are heated to melt the solder to recover lead. Workers breathe in the lead fumes and damage their nervous systems. Acid is poured on the circuit boards to recover gold and other precious metals. Plastics are burnt and the workers breathe in poisonous fumes full of dioxin. Cellphones also contain toxic mercury and cadmium. Such uncontrolled recycling methods cause severe environmental and health problems.
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