Why recycling your old phone matters

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Electronic waste remains a big problem in Australia, but it doesn’t have to be. Recycling initiatives across the country say the solution starts with you.

There are more mobile phones in Australia than people. And many of them aren’t even in use.

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, electronic waste, or e-waste, is currently growing at three times the rate of general waste in Australia, and mobile phones are one of its biggest culprits.

In Australia, e-waste is growing at three times the rate of general waste.
In Australia, e-waste is growing at three times the rate of general waste.
Supplied

Additionally, the amount of unwanted TVs and computers remains skyhigh. Clean Up Australia say that 88 per cent of those bought domestically every year will end up in landfill.

What should you do with your old phone?

MobileMuster, Australia’s only government accredited mobile phone recycling collected 79 tonnes of mobile phones and accessories last year, including one million headsets and batteries.

Customers can drop off their old devices at mobile phone retailers nationwide and post them directly to the company to be recycled at facilities in Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane.

Mobile phones are one of the biggest contributors to electronic waste.
Mobile phones are one of the biggest contributors to electronic waste.
AAP

More than 90 per cent of materials used in those phones - including rare metals like gold - are recycled and reused to make products, including jewellery, plastic fencing, and new batteries.

“That’s the equivalent of planting 4,600 trees and ... avoiding 170 tonnes of CO2 emissions,” MobileMuster manager Spyro Kalos told SBS News.

“But with 23 million phones in drawers and cupboards around the country, we still have a lot of work to do.”

Why don’t we recycle?

Australian legislation around e-waste management continues to fall short of international standards, according to researchers at the University of New South Wales.

Comparing the country’s e-waste laws to those of Japan and Switzerland, they concluded that Australia fails to support local councils who manage the largest volumes of e-waste and places no responsibility on the consumer to recycle.

Three-quarters of Australians know that their mobile phones can be recycled but only eight per cent actually do something about it, a 2017 Ipsos survey found.

And although more Australians are now recycling their phones than ever before, according to MobileMuster, the number of people keeping their devices tucked away at home are also on the rise.

One reason for that is the “just in case” factor, Mr Kalos said. “We upgrade to that brand new shiny phone and we shove [our old] phone into the back of the drawer just in case we need to go back to it, but we never do, and then one becomes two, and two becomes three.”

Data security also poses a major concern for many Australians, particularly as mobile devices are now more than just a telephone.

“When the mobile phone first came out, it was simply a tool to be able to make calls and texts,” Mr Kalos said. “Now we’re doing a lot more in terms of emails, photos, social media, banking.”

The advice for those concerned is to back up any data you don’t want to lose, log out of any Cloud accounts and reset the phone to factory mode.

It can be done in a day, and it’s worth your while, Mr Kalos said.

“Your average type of person may think, ‘well, my mobile phone isn’t going to make that much of a difference [to the planet]’, but when all of us start doing it, it has a significant environmental impact.”

From e-waste to e-treasure

It’s not just the planet that can benefit from e-waste. Projects up and down the country are helping members of the community through recycling.

One of them, Substation33, is based in Logan, south of Brisbane.

It processes around 150,000kg of e-waste every year, but it is more than just a recycling centre.

At Substation33, e-waste becomes a way for young and old to give back to the community.
At Substation33, e-waste becomes a way for young and old to give back to the community.
Supplied

Substation33 has turned old laptops, computers and household appliances into innovations such as electric bicycles, bluetooth speakers and a solar trailer to provide power to local festivals for free.

In collaboration with Logan Council and Queensland’s Griffith University, the enterprise has also developed 37 smart road signs that light up during floods.

Substation33 has developed a Flooded Road Smart Warning System which alerts road users of road flooding via bright, flashing LED signs.
Substation33 has developed a Flooded Road Smart Warning System which alerts road users of road flooding via bright, flashing LED signs.
Supplied

Its founder Tony Sharp says its outcomes are “more of a community asset than a commercial product”.

“We use electronic waste as a mechanism to give people work experience, work placements, a sense of community and somewhere to belong.”

In the last financial year they enlisted the help of 420 volunteers – from students to local residents – all looking to give something back.

And it’s not only the local area that Substation33 is supporting. It is currently working to install 100 power wells in villages without power in Indonesia, where more than 25 million households have no access to electricity.

Mr Sharp said: “We recycle electronic waste, assist people to change their lives in some way and build some pretty cool stuff”. 

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