Hidden Treasures in Smartphones

Written by Dimitris Kritikos, Technical Advisor at the WEEE Forum

Mobile phones are essential appliances for communication, entertainment, and information. According to the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), there were more than 8.58 billion mobile subscriptions in use worldwide in 2022, compared to a global population of 7.95 billion halfway through the year. However, mobile phones also contain many valuable and scarce materials that are often discarded when the phones are not collected or properly recycled. These materials, known as critical raw materials (CRMs), are important to produce various technological applications and have a high economic, strategical-supply and environmental importance. Therefore, recovering CRMs from mobile phones is a key challenge and opportunity for achieving a more sustainable and circular economy.

Among electronic waste (e-waste) mobile phones are considered one of the most valuable equipment based on their CRMs content. A typical mobile phone contains 60 raw materials , including many CRMs.  Some examples of CRMs that mobile phones include are cobalt, lithium, tantalum, and rare earth elements found in different parts, such as batteries, circuit boards, and speakers. However, only a small fraction (less than 1% of (selected) CRMs) of these materials is recovered through recycling processes of discarded electrical and electronic equipment (EEE), while most of them are lost in landfills, exported to countries with unknown environmental standards or hoarded in household drawers. Surprisingly, mobile phones rank in the top among small EEE products most often hoarded by consumers together with small consumer electronics and accessories, household and IT equipment.

The recovery of CRMs from mobile phones can bring many benefits for the environment, the economy, and society. For the environment, it can reduce the demand for primary extraction of CRMs, which often involves high energy consumption, greenhouse gas emissions, water pollution, and biodiversity loss. For the economy, it can increase the security of supply of CRMs, which are essential for the development of strategic sectors such as renewable energy, electric mobility, and digital technologies. For society, it can create new jobs and income opportunities in the recycling industry, as well as improve the health and safety of workers and communities involved in the informal sector of e-waste management.

To achieve the recovery and supply targets, the European Commission has proposed a Critical Raw Materials Act, which is a comprehensive legislative framework that aims to ensure a secure and sustainable supply of critical raw materials for the EU’s economy and strategic sectors.

WEEE-NET9 project will contribute to this effort by optimizing waste flows, increasing CRM recovery, and thus boosting CRMs supply by introducing an innovative mixture of gravitational, hydro- and bio-metallurgical technologies. 

There are not only mobile phones hiding in desk drawers but USB sticks, electric toys, cables, and more.

Invisible e-waste refers to electronic waste that goes unnoticed due to its nature or appearance, leading consumers to overlook its potential for recycling. Some examples of these types of objects, largely present in households are electric and electronic toys, e-cigarettes, power tools, smoke detectors, smart home gadgets, e-bikes, e-scooters, and electrical cables

 Join the WEEE Forum this Saturday for International E-Waste Day and tap into your own “urban mine”: https://weee-forum.org/iewd-about/

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