Sustainable Waste | Speaking of E-waste. The secret life of mobile phones

The video, made by, gives an answer to many central questions about the issue of e-waste, and in particular of mobile phones, recycling and disposal:

  • How are cell phones related to pollution, health, and global warming?
  • How much gold and silver can you get out of a cell phone?
  • Where do old cell phones and mobile devices go when you recycle them?
  • Why should you take those phones out of your sock drawer and take them back?
  • What toxins are in a typical cell phone?

More information can be found on their report. Reading the report I would like to share some of the very valuable information they share.

According to at the end of 2006 there were over 233 million mobile phones in use in US. Assuming that a person keeps a phone for 18 months on average, over 150 million phones are replaced per year. It is also estimate that over only 10 million cell phones are collected every year through recycling programs. This disposable way of using mobile phones has a huge impact on the environment, in fact a study suggested that extending the life of a phone from 1 to 4 years would decrease its environmental impacts by about the 40% [1].

Refurbishing and recycling a mobile phone extend the life of the phone and therefore has a positive impact on the environment. This because recycling would conserve the natural resources contained in the phone [there are many precious metal in phones] and would reduce the environmental impact due to the extraction of the resources. estimated that if we would recycle and extract the gold from 200 mobile phones we would be able to make a gold wedding ring! [2]

Moreover, recycling mobile phones has the direct benefit of preventing toxic substances from getting into the soil, water and air when sent to landfill or incinerators.

And remember this: recycling the metals in a cell phone requires significantly less resources than mining the earth for more! There is enough gold in 200 cell phones to make a gold wedding ring!

The following image present some of the most important area deprived of resources by material extraction.

Where resources are extracted
Source: Informic The Secret Life of Cell Phones. The Secret Life Series.

In the video the study shows that when mobile phones are collected, two are the possibilities: (1) they can be refurbished, meaning that they are checked and repaired and then are sold again in the US or internationally;  alternatively (2), if they are no more working for example, they are recycled, meaning that they are disassembled and the different components [metal, plastic, etc.] are separated and sent to the appropriate smelter.

What about you? How often do you change your phone? How many of them do you have lying in a drawer? What would you do with your old phone? Would you sell it, donate it, or recycle it?

I assume you don’t throw it in the bin, do you?


  1. Mireille Faist Emmenegger, et al, “Life Cycle Assessment of the Mobile Communication System UMTS: Towards Eco-Efficient Systems,” International Journal of Life Cycle Assessment 11, 4, (2006): 265–276.
  2. Assuming an average gold content of 25 mg per phone (70 g phone without batteries) | for a 5g wedding ring made purely of gold – Christian Hagelüken, Personal communication, Umicore Precious Metal Refining, Hoboken, Belgium, August 1, 2007.

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