Twelve leading mobile operators, including BT Group, Globe Telecom, KDDI, Orange, Safaricom, Singtel, and Telefonica, have joined forces with the GSMA (the global mobile telecoms industry organisation) to set a series of pace targets as part of an industry-wide drive towards a ‘circular economy’ of mobile devices. The new targets have been designed to help advance and accelerate the mobile industry’s goal of moving away from the traditional ‘take-make-dispose’ approach to the materials used in mobile phones. Instead, it is hoped that by 2030 using take-back schemes, operators will recover a minimum of 20% of new mobile devices, alongside ensuring that collected devices undergo repair, reuse, or are transferred to controlled recycling organisations.
The telecoms industry is aiming to develop a more circular lifecycle for mobile devices. Highlighting the opportunity on offer, the GSMA note that there are an estimated 5 billion mobile phones “currently sitting unused and unloved in desk drawers around the globe”[i]. To address this, the industry organisation has proposed two major commitments for mobile operators to sign up to. These are:
1. Increase take-back of mobile phones:
By 2030, the number of used mobile devices collected through operator take-back schemes will amount to at least 20% of new mobile devices distributed directly to customers.
2. Boost recovery of mobiles and prevent devices from going to landfill or incineration:
By 2030, 100% of used mobile devices collected through operator take-back schemes will be repaired, reused or transferred to controlled recycling organisations.
John Giusti, Chief Regulatory Officer for the GSMA, has said: “We believe in the need to move to a more circular economy to reduce the impact of mobile technology on the environment, and applaud the latest commitments from 12 leading operators to accelerate the transition to greater circularity. In addition to the environmental benefits, more efficient and responsible use of resources could lower costs and make devices more affordable for the unconnected.”[ii]
The new targets will sit alongside existing commitments, such as operator initiatives and national take-back schemes, and it is hoped that when combined, these will foster a reduction in e-waste. Hopes for the increased rates of refurbishment of older devices sit alongside the growing demand from consumers for the ability to repair devices themselves, requesting guidance, accessibility, and availability of parts. E-waste is a growing issue; it’s reported that a record 53.6 million metric tonnes (Mt) of electronic waste was generated worldwide in 2019, up 21% in just five years[iii]. This equates to an average of 7.3 kilograms per person, and e-waste has become the fastest-growing domestic waste stream, according to the United Nation’s Global E-waste Monitor 2020 report.
In the UK, a recent survey by the Royal Society of Chemistry (May 2022) asked participants about their purchasing and recycling habits, uncovering the following startling statistics:
· While the vast majority of consumers said they wished their devices lasted longer, they find it too difficult (68%) or too expensive (71%) to repair them when minor things go wrong
· Almost three-quarters (73%) of people we surveyed worldwide said they believe governments should take urgent action to tackle e-waste before the situation worsens.
· Just over half (57%) say they worry about the environmental effect of the unused tech devices they have at home but either don’t know what to do with them or are unconvinced that the current processes available in their local area deal with e-waste effectively.[iv]
Erik Wottrich, Head of Sustainability at Tele2, said:
“The growing amount of e-waste, including mobile phones, that is generated each year is not only an environmental challenge for our industry, but also a huge loss of potential financial value.”[v]
The GSMA believes that its new pace targets could have a substantial impact on the environment. Were the estimated 5 billion ‘dormant’ phones properly recycled, the organisation believes up to $8 billion worth of gold, palladium, silver, copper, are rare earth elements could be recovered. This could include cobalt, the volume of which would be enough to create 10 million electric car batteries[vi].
Positive signs are already emerging, particularly in terms of behaviour change. In 2014, consumers were replacing their mobile phones on average every 24 months; however, as of 2021, this has increased by 10 months to 34. It is believed that this trend is set to continue, and the GSMA estimates that the refurbished mobile device market will surpass $140bn by 2030, compared with just $49.9bn in 2020. In a previous research paper released last November, the GSMA suggested that extending the lifetime of all smartphones in the world by one year has the potential to save up to 21.4 million tonnes of CO2 emissions annually by 2030, equal to taking more than 4.7 million cars off the road[vii].
Lauren has extensive experience as an analyst and market researcher in the digital technology and travel sectors. She has a background in researching and forecasting emerging technologies, with a particular passion for the Videogames and eSports industries. She joined the Critical Information Group as Head of Reports and Market Research at GRC World Forums, and leads the content and data research team at the Zero Carbon Academy. “What drew me to the academy is the opportunity to add content and commentary around sustainability across a wealth of industries and sectors.”