Mobile Upgrade Cycle Is ‘Harming’ Environment

pile mobile phones ©iCreative3D shutterstock

Current mobile contracts lead to the waste of valuable materials and add to landfill, finds a study, which says £110m worth of gold is in unusued devices

Current mobile business models are leading to the loss of valuable materials such as gold, as well as harming the environment by sending unused handsets to landfills, according to new research.

Materials including four tonnes of gold, worth more than £100 million, is going to waste in some 85 million unused UK mobile phones, according to the study, published on Sunday in the journal the International Journal of Life Cycle Assessment.

The study called for the overhaul of the industry’s current business practices, which promote frequent upgrades.

Mobiles dumped

Phone chargers waste green carbon footprint © HLPhoto Shutterstock“Our study shows that there is little incentive to recycle old mobiles,” stated Dr James Suckling of the University of Surrey, who led the study. “This leaves many unused devices lingering in drawers until they are eventually thrown away.”

The result is damage to the environment as well as the loss of materials that would be valuable to the manufacturers themselves, Dr Suckling said. “There are an estimated 85 million unused phones in the UK. Each of these phones has been manufactured using precious metals such as gold, copper and silver, which are costly to extract, both in cash terms and environmental impact.”

He estimated that replacing the gold alone found in unused handsets would cost about £110 million and would release about 84,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide.

Take-back clause

The study suggested a “take-back clause” in mobile contracts that would encourage users to return devices to the manufacturer for recycling when they were no longer needed, as well as the application fo a cloud-computing model that would shift data-processing tasks to remote data centres and allow the manufacture of simpler handsets.

“This is a model that has been used already, replacing power hungry desktop PCs with thin client computers that run off cloud services, with less hardware reduced power consumption by up to 55 percent,” Dr Suckling stated.

He said the challenges to such a shift would include convincing users of the reliability and security of cloud services.

The EU has introduced regulations to help manage e-waste, while a recent study found that Britons waste £134m a year in energy costs by failing to unplug mobile chargers.

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