World’s top tech firms sharpen their focus on sustainability

Apple’s environmentally-aware robot Liam, who can take apart more than 1.2 million iPhones in a year, while extracting different components to be re-used or recycled.

Smartphones, we all use them, but how sustainable are they really. Tonnes of electronic waste is generated each year and we need to do our part in reducing it.

In an ideal world, we should be able to get longer out of each smartphone we purchase, and when it has reached the end of its lifecycle, it should be properly recycled. In reality, perfectly good and working smartphones are replaced for the latest model, because you like being up-to-date with tech or because your network offers you a free upgrade.

Unfortunately, a lot of these ‘old’ phones will end up in a drawer or put in the waste bin eventually, despite the majority of them still being in perfect working order. However, if you were to stop and consider the potential environmental damage that can be caused by the materials in a smartphone, you probably wouldn’t dump it so flippantly. There was a time when you’d look at upgrading every 18-24 months, but now many of the networks have shortened this to 12 months and in some countries this is as low as six months.

In 2018, around 1.56 billion smartphones were sold worldwide and three-quarters of these were upgrades. Often the older phone will get donated to a family member, passed onto a friend or donated to be recycled, which is ideal. However, this doesn’t happen enough and we contribute to the growing problem of e-waste. It now seems as if there’s an accepted cycle of upgrades that happens every year or two and in many cases, even less than that. I’m a massive tech junkie and love checking out the latest tech, but we all have a responsibility to do our part and face up to the realities of the damage that is caused by our addiction to tech.

The Global E-waste Monitor 2017 is a collaborative effort of the United Nations University (UNU), represented through its Vice-Rectorate in Europe, hosted Sustainable Cycles (SCYCLE) Programme, the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), and the International Solid Waste Association (ISWA).

In 2016, 76% of all e-waste is unaccounted for, and is either in landfills, incinerated, informally recycled, or is sitting unused.

This report showed that every year in the Americas, there is an estimated 11.6 kg of e-waste created for each person. Only 17% is properly recycled.

Here in Europe, we produce more e-waste per capita at 16.6 kg/person, however, we recycle quite a bit more at 35%. That still means that around 10.8 kg per person in Europe goes unrecycled every year.

Precious metals and other valuable materials can be recovered from your smartphone and other electronic devices. A lot of the materials are plastics and metals, but the printed circuit boards contain gold, silver, copper, palladium, platinum, gallium, indium and silicon.

Even when a smartphone stops working; the battery is no longer holding its charge or the screen is broken beyond repair there’s still a lot of value to be obtained from it. Believe it or not, but up to 80% of a mobile phone is recyclable.

Most charity shops will accept your old phone, even if it doesn’t work. There are lots of companies on the internet that will buy old working phones from you like envirofone.com. Three Ireland will take your old phone, satnav, MP3 player or digital camera and even give you money for them. They’ll take your phone from any network and promise to donate to their charity partner, Jigsaw, the National Centre for Youth Mental Health.

Vodafone will also take your old phone and dispose of it for you in an environmentally safe way. Proceeds raised are donated to the Vodafone and Conservation Volunteers Nature Fun — an initiative which provides funding for environmental projects in communities throughout Ireland.

Around 80% of the parts in a mobile phone can be recycled.
Around 80% of the parts in a mobile phone can be recycled.

Of course, you can also trade-in your old working phone or sell privately on classified websites. If that’s not your thing, then check out your local secondhand shop or CEX who specialise in electronics to trade it in for a newer model or just sell it on for cash.

Whatever you do, don’t just bin any electronic equipment. Pass it onto someone else, anyone else, or bring it to a recycling facility or charity shop.

Many of the phone companies have started to look at the way they package their products to reduce or get rid of the plastics and non-recyclable materials used. However, they need to start doing more to make their phones more repairable.

Check out JerryRigEverything on YouTube to see teardowns of mobile phones and you see just how repairable your phone really is. Once phones had removable backs, but nowadays, most flagships are waterproof sealed with electronics so jam-packed that it’s more and more difficult to replace or repair.

Apple makes a big deal of how they recycle their old iPhones using a robot called Liam. The Apple Renew programme is an expanded recycling programme for your old Apple devices. Liam the robot, can take apart more than 1.2 million iPhones in a year, extracting different components to be re-used or recycled. He can extract cobalt and lithium from iPhone batteries, separate gold and copper from the camera and extract silver and platinum from the main logic board.

In Ireland, Apple has a trade-in scheme where you’ll get an Apple Store Gift Card for eligible devices. If it’s not eligible for credit, Apple will recycle it for free.

And, they promise that no matter the model or condition, they can turn it into something good for you and good for the planet.

Update: Unfortunately, Liam the robot has been retired by Apple. The good news is that he has been replaced and upgraded by a new model Daisy. This allows Apple to quadruple the number of locations US customers can send their iPhone to be disassembled by Daisy, its recycling robot. Daisy will disassemble and recycle select used iPhones returned to Best Buy stores throughout the US and KPN retailers in the Netherlands. Customers can also turn in their eligible devices to be recycled at any Apple Store or through apple.com as part of the Apple Trade In programme.

Apple has received nearly 1 million devices through Apple programmes and each Daisy can disassemble 1.2 million devices per year. In 2018, the company refurbished more than 7.8 million Apple devices and helped divert more than 48,000 metric tons of electronic waste from landfills.

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