Why a circular mobile economy is the new lease of life for five billion neglected devices

Viewpoint Article

By Steven Moore, Head of Climate Action at the GSMA

At the time of writing, there are an estimated five billion phones lying dormant, sitting in drawers unused, but full of useful material. Those mobiles contain 50,000 tonnes of copper, 500 tonnes of silver, 100 tonnes of gold, and enough cobalt for 10 million EV batteries!

Taking an unused and neglected device tucked away at home can have a monumental effect: it can help get someone online who couldn’t previously afford it; it can help avoid the environmental impact of manufacturing a new phone; or it can be used for parts to keep other devices running for longer or incorporate in new models. A refurbished phone has 87% less climate impact than a new one.

The huge potential from the reuse of devices plays a central part in our sustainability vision for the mobile industry. We were the first to commit fully to the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals and we set our 2050 net zero climate ambition back in 2019, before any major world economy.

But to achieve these commitments, we really need to get on the front foot with the three ‘Rs’ of reuse, refurbish and recycle. We don’t just need to work with manufacturers and refurbishers, we need a major, concerted effort from governments and policymakers too. It’ll be a big challenge, but we’re tackling it head on, with a three-phased approach to creating a circular economy for mobile devices.

Phase One: Setting our vision

The first phase is our vision – understanding what the end destination should be, and reaching it together as an industry.

We completed phase one last November, when we published our Strategy Paper on the Circular Economy: Mobile devices. This is included a long-term vision for 2050, to create a fully sustainable, circular economy for mobile devices. We believe in this vision for 2050, similar to our net zero ambition; in fact they are complementary and support each other.

The paper explained the current environmental impact of mobile phones, and what would be a sustainable future, made up of three core actions:

To ensure every single mobile device that is produced has the longest lifetime possible.
Each should be 100% recyclable, made using 100% recycled content and 100% renewable energy.
To guarantee no device ends up in landfill or being incinerated.

The next phase is to take this vision and set out clear and tangible actions for both mobile operators and the broader industry.

 Phase Two: Putting the vision into action with targets

Working with the project group who helped put the paper together, we wanted to put metrics in place for what was within mobile network operators’ control: take back rates of mobile phones.

Operators proposed a target take back between 20% and 40% of the new phones they sell customers. We believe the 20% target is more likely, given the challenges around getting customers to hand in phones, but if we’re able to hit 40%, that would be incredible.

The other target we agreed was ensuring no mobile ends up as waste – either in landfill or incinerated. Wasted phones means wasted materials and components, which have a greater energy and environmental impact when created from scratch than recycled. For example, one tonne of used mobile phones contains 100-times more gold than one tonne of gold ore. There are also major health impacts on people who carry out informal burning of mobile phones on waste dumps.

We recently announced these ambitious new targets with a leading group of 12 operators including BT Group, Telefonica, KDDI, and our project group leads Orange and Tele2.

The third phase is to get even more companies behind the circularity vision to help us transform.

Phase Three: Get more companies to support the vision

As an industry,  we must collectively rethink how mobile phones are made and used so they have less environmental impact and are used to their maximum potential. All stakeholders in the mobile industry have a part to play; through collaborative, innovative research and development, we can build a mobile industry that puts the planet first.

We are already seeing signs of this from phone designers and manufacturers. Fairphone has been a leader in designing more modular and repairable phones, and engaging their supply chains to source recycled and conflict-free materials. Apple has an ambition to make their products using 100% renewable energy by 2030, has started to report on the level of recycled content across its portfolio, and has developed sophisticated technology to dismantle and recycle phones. Samsung announced a new sustainability strategy last year, with a focus on improved energy and material efficiency, as well as investments in R&D to be more circular.

We are also seeing the mobile industry stride forward in handset longevity. Replacement services are becoming more accessible for end users, while phone batteries and screens are becoming more durable; all in the name of sustainability, developing mobile manufacturing practices fit for purpose.

But this is just the start and we want more manufacturers and policymakers to play a central role too.

In many high-income countries it’s already illegal for phones for end up in landfill, but we as an industry want to work with lower- to middle-income countries to build an end-of-life framework for mobile technology to ensure no phone becomes waste. As an example, at the moment Orange removes unwanted phones from markets in Africa to have them recycled in France. Ideally they would be recycled locally and the recycled materials then used to support local manufacturing in Africa.

But we can help solve the problem by engaging with mobile users too. If phones end up in landfill then it’s often because people don’t know how to dispose of their devices when they’re done with them. They either hoard them or bin them, often illegally. Many of us can also relate to the problem of having phones gathering dust in cupboard at home, either because of uncertainty over how to dispose of it, or security concerns regarding personal data being exposed in the recycling process.

The industry has a role to play in educating people on what to do with old devices and how to properly dispose of them. In Australia, we’ve seen some strong progress in this respect, with the country’s nationwide MobileMuster, a free, not-for-profit recycling programme. Users are guided through recycling their old, broken mobile phones, chargers and accessories easily from home, or at one of MobileMuster’s local drop-off locations.

Putting sustainability top of the table

Understanding how the industry is progressing is essential not only to the industry meeting 2030 and 2050 targets, but also raising ambition to surpass expectations.

We’re pushing for industry-wide monitoring and metrics that boost transparency. With our recently published ESG Metrics for Mobile, mobile companies can show the consumer and stakeholders around the world how serious they are about creating change. Sustainability awareness programmes like Eco Rating give the public the information to make sustainable choices when deciding on the next phone.

We hope these ratings will create an ambition loop of competition in the industry to be the sustainable gold-standard and top of the list.

What you can do

If you’re a mobile network operator, manufacturer or policymaker, we urge you to read our strategy paper on the circular economy and get behind the targets and vision.

Whether an operator who can improve takeback rates, a manufacturer who can make handsets easier to self-repair, or a policymaker who can build better recycling programmes and right to repair initiatives, we need you on this journey with us.

Is the telecommunications sector doing enough to promote sustainability and the circular economy? Join the experts in discussion at this year’s Total Telecom Congress live in Amsterdam

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