Mobile Phone

Mobile phones are one of the biggest technological advances made in recent years. Fifteen years ago very few people owned a mobile as they were big, expensive to buy and calls cost a fortune. Today it would be surprising if anyone reading this didn’t own at least one and around 75% of people in Northern Ireland regularly use a mobile phone.

Many people have more than one mobile or have old phones lying around at home, often as a result of the 15million phones that are upgraded in the UK every year. If these phones were laid end to end they would stretch from John O’Groats to Land’s End.

In total, there are an estimated 90million unwanted phones in the UK alone!

This mobile mountain weights around 12,000 tonnes and it is estimated that only 5% of old mobile phones are currently recycled.
While there are many benefits to increased access to mobile phones, there are also many costs.

Packaging is important to protect the phone during transportation, but often mobiles are over packaged in polythene bags, polystyrene and cardboard. Think of the size of the last phone you bought and then think about how big the box was it came in.

Obsolescence and Upgrades

Obsolescence is when a product is designed not to last for a long time. The reasoning is that the sooner it is replaced, the greater the demand for new products, resulting in more profits for the manufacturer. New mobiles which are smaller, have improved functions or better screens are constantly being developed, resulting in people replacing their old mobile phones by upgrading to the latest model.

Often we are encouraged by our service provider to accept a new phone every year, even though phones are designed to last around five years.

This planned obsolescence through upgrading causes waste and uses up natural resources.


Mobiles contain a number of different metals, some of which are extremely toxic e.g. cadmium, rhodium and beryllium and valuable e.g. gold. These metals come from all over the world, often from regions where there is little environmental protection or rights for the workers.

Another metal used in mobiles is coltan, mainly found in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). This region has been ravaged by war for years, and the United Nations says fighters are selling the coltan to help fund their wars. As well as the human suffering, wildlife is also at risk e.g. rare mountain gorillas cannot be protected and in some cases are shot by the miners for food.

These metals should be safely removed and recycled at the end of the phone’s useful life. Not only would this ensure these toxic substances are not released into the environment, but would also lessen the demand for natural resources.


The outer case of mobile phones is mostly made from plastic. It is estimated that for every litre of oil used to produce plastic, another litre is needed to provide the energy required for the process.

Oil is produced in many countries including Saudi Arabia, Russia, USA, Nigeria, Venezuela and Ecuador. As with the metals, many of these countries do not have high safety and environmental standards.

In the Ecuadorian rainforest, the oil industry is working hard to produce as much oil as possible, which is not without environmental consequence, as the industry has a history of oil spills in the area. Activists estimate that in the last 30 years, more oil has been leaked into the ground in Ecuador than was spilt by the oil tanker Exxon Valdez which was wrecked off the coast of Alaska in 1989 – that’s over 41.5 million litres!

Round the World

Mobile phones are made up of valuable materials from all over the world. If we don’t recycle our phones, these materials are lost. The costly process of extracting and refining new raw materials must continue over and over again.

Oil can come from Ecuador, Angola, USA – to name but a few. Metals can from places such as the Democratic Republic of Congo, Japan, USA, Canada, India and Kazakhstan.

After all the components have been brought together they are assembled in large factories like ones found in Mexico. Save the Children dispute the working conditions for mobile phone factory workers in Mexico.

Many charities and other organisations collect mobile phones for reuse or recycling as a way to generate money and there are also companies that will pay you for your old phone. Many Council Recycling Centres will also accept old mobile phones for recycling.

  • Diverts valuable materials away from landfill
  • Reduces pollution. Mobile phones contain harmful chemicals which are released into the environment when the phone begins to degrade e.g. heavy metals like cadmium. Large amounts of carbon dioxide are also produced during the manufacture of phones
  • Reuse/recycle precious metals – e.g. gold, silver, copper, palladium. If these were collected from UK and Ireland’s discarded phones, they would be worth £39 million!
  • European Law. The WEEE (Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment) directive from the European Union means that electronic equipment like mobiles, cannot be disposed of in a landfill site
  • Fund raising. Many schools and charities collect mobiles for recycling as a way of generating money
  • Recovering metals and other materials from old phones reduces the need to extract more raw materials

Many of our old mobile phones are remanufactured or refurbished and sent to the Developing World for reuse. This is a good idea because:

  • New phones are still too expensive for many people in the developing world
  • There is inadequate landline infrastructure
  • They provide vital communication
  • It is far better to reuse the phones than to recycle them

Other phones and components are recycled.

Plastic Case – Ground into tiny pieces and recycled into new plastic products, including traffic cones.

Chargers – Crushed up to extract the copper wire.

Circuit Boards – Sometimes the components are used in electronic toys and alarm systems.

However, some companies export phones to counties like India and China where they are burnt to extract valuable metals like gold, silver, copper and lead. This often happens in the open, with toxic fumes released directly into the air and with no protective clothing provided for the workers.

If you have old mobiles lying around at home, why not give them to a charity or send them off to be reused or recycled? Remember to find out exactly where they will go and how they will be recycled, to ensure it is done in an ethical and environmentally sound way.