Repair and recycle of mobile phones is imperative to reduce global e-waste
Updated 01:50, 04-Mar-2023
Ken Browne in Barcelona

Over 50 million tonnes of phones, computers and other e-waste are produced every year by the tech industry, according to the United Nations Environment Programme. And that's forecast to reach 75 million tonnes, which is causing concern as only 17 percent of e-waste is currently recycled.

Beyond the physical waste, the tech sector is also estimated to be responsible for up to 4 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions – that's more pollution than the entire global air transport industry.

Now with the huge and growing energy demands of data storage and artificial intelligence, the industry could consume a tenth of the world's electricity by 2025.


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At the Mobile World Congress (MWC) 2023 in Barcelona, activists from Scientist Rebellion made their voices heard, saying distant future pledges are not enough. 

The congress is run by the Global System for Mobile Communication Association (GSMA), which "represents the interests of mobile operators worldwide, uniting over 750 operators with near 400 companies," as stated on its website. Many of its members have committed to a 'net zero by 2050' pledge.

However, according to protestor Justnya Swidrak, it is not enough. She's wearing her scientist's white coat and representing the Scientist Rebellion movement outside the MWC.


"The tech industry needs to change their policies and practices immediately," she tells CGTN. "There is a lot of greenwashing and in reality they are doing nothing."

So what does big tech say it's doing to reduce its giant global environmental impact?


Fixable phones, making upgrades possible

The industry says that things are changing, some companies are designing fixable phones and making upgrading elements like the camera possible without changing the entire phone. 

Nokia showcased its new Nokia G22 smartphone at the MWC; the company claims it has 'QuickFix' repairability built-in, a 100 percent recycled plastic back cover, and a three-day battery life.

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Companies are moving towards a more sustainable model, says Steven Moore, GSMA's Head of Climate Action.

The construction of some mobile phones makes the repairing, replacing or recycling of the parts impossible. /CFP
The construction of some mobile phones makes the repairing, replacing or recycling of the parts impossible. /CFP

The construction of some mobile phones makes the repairing, replacing or recycling of the parts impossible. /CFP

"Actually, we see quite a number of our members have set targets earlier than 2050," according to Moore. "There is something called the European Green Digital Coalition and they actually have targets that are at least 2040, some as early as 2030."

Moore says that there has been a shift in consumer demand and practices and people are now using devices for longer – averaging three years rather than one to two years, as in the recent history. But to achieve net zero in an industry where most of the environmental damage is done before consumers have opened the packaging is a huge challenge.

The sheer mass of precious metals and materials such as gold and lithium that need to be mined to continually feed the latest shiny innovations on the global market is staggering.


Reconditioned phones: One solution?

One area that may help reduce the carbon footprint is a rise in the demand for cheaper reconditioned phones. The used mobile phone market in Europe is set to double in size by 2030 to over $14 billion.

Companies like Janado in Germany say there has been a change in consumer habits, but their recycling efforts are often hampered by manufacturers.

"We hope that in the future the big brands make it easier to recycle small parts of the smartphones," says Kamran Doorsoun, Janado's head of marketing. "At the moment, they use glue for the screws and it makes it really difficult to open the phones and to recycle them."

Mobile manufacturers may say that they are looking towards a more sustainable model, but with over 1.3 billion devices manufactured a year, there is still a long way to go.


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