We’re at a point where about 80 percent of American adults have a smartphone. The average American uses their phone for five hours a day. So what happens when we throw them out?
The answer: it depends on who you ask.
According to the EPA, less than 10 percent of e-waste is recycled in the U.S., and about 75 percent ends up in landfills, where toxic materials can leach into the ground. But, according to the CTIA, 85 percent of smartphones are either reused or recycled.
So, who’s right?
The truth is, no one really knows what happens to smartphones after they leave our hands, or how many end up being recycled properly. There’s so little official reporting that even the agencies responsible don’t have good numbers, as Motherboard explains:
“When I asked the EPA if it had any data on e-waste recycling in the US—which would give us some sense of how much of our junk gets reused or trashed—a spokesman told me that recycling companies aren’t required to report the figures.”
Smartphones are one of the most important inventions of the 21st century. They have transformed the way we live and communicate. And they may be changing our planet in more ways than you might expect.
What happens when you upgrade your phone? Maybe you sell it to a friend for $100 or take it to an e-waste recycling center. But many old phones end up in poor countries, where they are often recycled in a way that could be hazardous to health and the environment.
How Smartphones Are Recycled
We looked at how smartphones change hands as they move from their makers to consumers and then on to a new home after their useful life is over.
The first step is typically a purpose-built factory, which can process millions of phones at a time. Not surprisingly, most of these factories are in Asia, since 60 percent of the world’s mobile phones are made there. The largest number of these factories are in India (30), China (23), Pakistan (12) and Vietnam (11). In these factories, phones are broken down into materials that can be used again: aluminum, copper, plastics, glass and precious metals like gold and silver. These materials get sold on to manufacturers who use them in new products like laptops or telev
**”To mobilize the masses, you must first entice them.”**
The growth of smartphones is a bit like that of a human population. It starts small, with a few early adopters. If the product is good enough, eventually it catches on. And then we have what you might call an explosion: sales rise so quickly they seem to defy the laws of physics.
For both humans and phones, nothing lasts forever. Our individual lifespans are limited; so are those of our devices. How do we reconcile this fact with the seemingly endless number of new phones hitting the market?
The answer is recycling. While it sounds negative, recycling your old smartphone is actually a great thing for both you and the environment. In this post, I talk more about how smartphones are recycled and why we should all do it more often.
I am always curious to understand where my old smartphones go once I get rid of them. My iPhone 5 is currently sitting on a shelf in my office, but I might decide to recycle it soon. I was surprised to learn that the recycling process is fairly complex and not very profitable. Also, there are many different ways to recycle a phone, each with its own pros and cons.
What happens when you recycle your phone?
The vast majority of the time, your phone will be recycled domestically; it will stay within the country it was sent from. There are many forms of recycling: refurbishment, material recycling and energy recovery.
Refurbishment is the most common form of recycling. It consists in fixing the phone and selling it again as a used product. The most well-known company doing this is Gazelle. The advantage of refurbishment is that it allows for reusing parts that would otherwise need to be extracted from phones and then replaced by new parts (batteries, screens etc).
Over the past 50 years, American society has grown increasingly concerned about what to do with our used goods. As the population of people increased and the amount of trash we produced grew, many states began to regulate what could be dumped in landfills.
Today, most major cities have recycling centers that accept a variety of materials, from paper and cardboard to glass, aluminum, plastic and batteries. Many apartment buildings also have recycling centers for residents’ convenience. But it’s still common for people to toss everything into their black trash bags and haul them out to the curb on garbage day.
In 2016, Americans threw away nearly 9 million tons of electronics (including phones), according to data from the Environmental Protection Agency. That’s more than 2 percent of all waste disposed, which is a huge number considering how small and lightweight electronics are in comparison to other materials like wood or yard trimmings. So where do those millions of pounds end up?
The first thing to know is that there are different types of recycling. The main two types of recycling are called primary and secondary. Primary recycling is the process of using a raw material again, without converting it into another material. An example of primary recycling would be if you took your used aluminum cans back to the supermarket, they would melt them down and put them back in the drinks aisle.
Secondary recycling is when you convert one product into something completely different. For example, turning e-waste into jewelry or furniture.
Secondary recycling isn’t always the best option for electronics because it requires a lot of energy (and sometimes toxic materials) to do so. However, it’s becoming more popular because it makes a lot less waste (less than 1%) than primary recycling.