Most consumers will have experienced the traumatising time when they’ve purchased a new smartphone or tablet, only to discover that it pretty much immediately becomes out of date.

This is thanks to competitive brands releasing a new all-singing all-dancing version of the same product, of course. Not exactly an ideal position to be in as a consumer, but there is something that tells us tech-lovers we must have the latest model or gadget right away. Frequent upgrades and new purchases means that old, no longer required electronics are being disposed of faster than ever before, with e-waste fast becoming a bigger problem. It may come as a shock to learn that recent reports suggest…

…We generate over 50 million tons of electronic waste worldwide each year, with much of that being irresponsibly discarded.

What is e-waste?

Electronic waste, or e-waste, is really as it sounds – waste electronic equipment. We’re talking about everything from trashed smartphones, to computers, to TV’s and all electronics in between. The problem is that e-waste is potentially a lot more harmful than other forms of rubbish.

When electronics waste away in landfill, they are constantly seeping toxic chemicals, such as lead, coltan and cadmium which don’t break down naturally and all have links to nasty human health conditions.

In fact, ten cadmium battery can pollute 600,000 litres of water – that’s the water that we drink. So it’s not just bad for the environment, it’s bad for us.


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The challenges with e-waste

Our planet and environment are our legacy to our future-generations, meaning that we have a responsibility to overcome the challenges that we face to effectively dispose of things like cadmium, lead and non-biodegradable plastics.


As part of the United Kingdom’s commitment to keeping our environment safe and clean, legislation has been introduced to control the disposal of hazardous waste. This means that those who wish to be classed as recyclers need to be officially licensed and keep detailed accounts of what they are disposing of. The drawn up legislation also ensures that we are committed to dealing with the waste ourselves, rather than blindly shipping it off to non-OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) countries that cannot deal with it effectively.

Unfortunately not everyone abides by these rules, and there are still individuals and companies who are only interested in making themselves some quick cash, regularly bending the rules for their own financial gain.

Electronic materials and waste are often shipped out to developing countries under the false impression that they are actually salvageable pieces of equipment that can be brought back to standard or used. Despite some being content with this “out of sight, out of mind” process, rather than solving the problem this merely passes the issue onto others who don’t have the means to deal with it.

What can we do?

As consumers, we all have a responsibility to ensure that the products we buy and no longer have a requirement for are passed down to others, sold legitimately through secondary sales channels or are disposed of and recycled in accordance with the vitally important legislation that we have set out in this country.


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So how do I responsibly recycle my old phone?

Recycling your old mobile is a simple process. Most phone recycling companies in the UK are internet-based so all you need to do is sit down at your computer for a few minutes and check what they have to offer. The quickest way is to use a comparison site first to find the best deal on your phone.


All you have to do is search the site for your old mobile’s make and model and enter the requested details. The recycler will make you an offer based on the information you supply and you can choose to accept or reject it. If you accept, most companies will send you a freepost bag so that you can post your phone to them.

It is often worth paying a bit extra for recorded delivery though, so that you can confirm your phone has reached its destination.

Once it has received your mobile phone, the recycling company will usually check that the details you gave match the device and that it has not been reported as stolen. If all of that’s right, then you can expect to be paid straight away; but it’s worth noting some companies need two or three days to carry out their checks, hence the delay in payment. If the phone’s condition is not as good as you described, the phone recycling company will amend its offer. If you aren’t happy, most will return your phone free of charge. If your mobile has been reported as stolen, the recycler will report the matter to the Police and you will not be paid.

A good resource for learning more on recycling is here

What happens to my phone after I’ve been paid?

The mobile recycling company will now assess what’s the best way to handle your old phone. If it is a fairly new model in great condition, chances are that the recycler will clean it up and offer it for resale in the UK. An older model phone in good condition will probably be sold on to markets in the developing world. A phone that has minor damage or defects that can easily be repaired, it will also most likely be refurbished and sold on overseas, provided that resale price justifies the cost of repair.


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These solutions aren’t just good for the environment. Statistics show that a large majority of the developing world are without a landline, so these refurbished phones give them a means of communication that they so desperately need – and that we take for granted. And just think, by recycling a fairly new model and sending it back into the UK market, you are offering those who couldn’t get the latest handset at the time a chance to have a go now.

This is an incredible gallery for seeing how mobile phones are broken down in Shenzhen, China

If your phone is damaged beyond economical repair, then it might well be dismantled and its usable parts match with other damaged phones to produce a working one. Otherwise the phone will be sent on for proper disposal. Usually this means to a plant that can retrieve the precious metals like gold and silver that all mobiles contain, and extract the potentially toxic rare earth metals such as cadmium. Plastic components are also removed for recycling before what remains is dumped.

What happens to precious materials that are retrieved from damaged phones?

Recyclers can also take the nickel found in phone batteries, recycle it and make it into stainless steel for kitchen instruments such as saucepans. All the plastic contained within phones can also be taken and melted down for plastic sheeting, or even traffic cones. There’s actually a good amount of money to be made from recycling these phone scrap elements, as most materials can be used again for other phones or devices. So you can rest assured, even the broken phones


Do the right thing!

Whatever you decide to do, it is our responsibility to ensure that old tech does not end up in landfill. Have a look and see what you could get for it – even if it’s just so you know it will be recycled properly. And don’t forget – if you can’t make money from your old gadgets, there are always charities that will take them off your hands too. There’s always a way to be green and sensibly recycle your devices.

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