Auto Draft 20

Revealed: what happens to sold or discarded mobile phones

Every year, there are 1.5 billion new smartphones sold around the world.

And while some of these sales are to first-time smartphone owners in developing nations, it’s fair to assume the majority will be to replace an existing device.

Amid the thrill of the new, it’s easy to ignore the ecological and societal consequences of discarding old handsets, which are typically made of plastic and potentially toxic metals.

Many old handsets will end up in drawers and cupboards, while a lucky few will be regifted to relatives or friends.

However, millions of handsets are traded in, sold online, donated to charities or thrown in small electrical recycling bins across the UK each year.

So what happens when you trade in or throw away an old handset? And could more be done in terms of recycling old smartphones?

Sold handsets

As well as the option of placing a small ad in your local paper or on eBay, plenty of companies specialise in buying and recycling old smartphones.

Your chosen high street retailer, network provider or hardware manufacturer may offer their own buyback service or part-exchange scheme.

Apple has developed industrial robots to break down and harvest materials from old iPhones, claiming two thirds of each device they buy back will be repurposed.

Third-party resellers recondition second-hand smartphones in good condition, before selling them at knock-down prices to people unable or unwilling to pay new prices.

Many consumers begrudge paying hundreds of pounds for a new handset, when a model considered cutting-edge a couple of years ago could be had for a fraction of this cost.

And if you don’t have a spare £1,000 for an iPhone 12 Pro, a refurbished iPhone 8 can be yours for less than one fifth of the cost.

There is also a thriving market in developing nations for scuffed but functional handsets.

Discarded handsets

The fate of smartphones discarded at civic amenity sites is less clearly defined.

Recycling old smartphones is vital, considering the long-term damage that leaching metals and disintegrating plastics could do to the soil.

On the plus side, up to 80 per cent of an end-of-life smartphone can be recycled. And this process often begins at a dedicated reprocessing plant.

There are over 1,000 global facilities which have earned a coveted Responsible Recycling certificate.

Here, plastic is sorted using techniques like density separation and infrared light, in preparation for being remoulded into new materials.

It’s worth the site operators taking time to sift out precious metals like copper and gold, which can be melted down and resold or repurposed. Ferrous metals are also sought after.

Palladium can be redeployed in fuel cells, zinc mixes with copper to produce brass, and gold-coated contacts are reusable everywhere from speakers to keyboards and monitors.

Although repurposing metals generates its own ecological footprint, it’s far more environmentally friendly than mining base metals or manufacturing new alloys from scratch.

Back To Top