Royal Society of Chemistry backs recycling drive to recover precious metals

People need to recycle their old gadgets so that increasingly rare materials can be used again.

The Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC) says that some of the precious metals and other rare materials embedded in electronic devices now in very short supply.

An RSC survey of 2,353 people in the UK found that 45% of UK households are storing up to five unused electronic devices, including computers, mobile phones, tablets and e-readers.

However, four out of five (82%) households with these unused devices have no plans to recycle them, and that’s causing great concern, as there is a struggle to source some materials essential in manufacturing this kit.

Mobiles hoarded

Across the wide age group polled – 16-75 – 14% said they would resell old devices but the majority (66%) said they intended to hang onto them as spares.

It is estimated that as many as 125 million mobile phones are being stored/hoarded in the UK.

The RSC starkly warns that people could be hoarding obsolescent gadgets that contain precious materials, including six metal elements that are rare or from conflict regions.

For example, indium, gallium, arsenic and silver all are used to make the electronic components in smartphones, but at present rates of use, the supplies of precious materials will run out within 100 years.

Robert Parker, RSC chief executive said:

“We are approaching the point of no return for some of these materials. Over our lifetime, one person in the UK will produce around three tonnes of electronic waste. However, there are indications that number could increase as the number of smart, wireless or connected devices in the home increase.”

The RSC says pressure and scarcity will only worsen as technology ownership grows so recovering the rare element components in waste electronics should be made a national priority,

Robert Parker added:

“As individuals, reuse and recycling are the best options available to us, but even if recycled it is still extremely difficult to recover some of these elements from unused devices. We need action now – from governments, manufacturers and retailers – to make reuse and recycling much easier, and we must enable a new generation of chemistry talent to help.”

Just over a third (37%) of people polled had kept old devices because of fears around data and security that put them off recycling them while 29% said they were not sure where to go to recycle items like this.

Gadgets at home

The survey also showed that 52% of 16–24 year olds have 10 or more gadgets at home, either being used or stored, compared with 39% of 35–44 year olds and only 30% of 55–75 year olds.

Quantify exactly the amount of individual rare elements embedded in e-waste and therefore, the commercial value, is complex.

But the RSC says celebrations around the International Year of the Periodic Table provide an ideal opportunity to consider the value of scarce elements. Robert Parker said: “The UK has a tremendous opportunity to become a world leader in this and set an example for other nations to follow.”

The RSC is working on recommendations to improve e-waste recycling that it plans to publish by the end of the year.

Sustainable mobile phone

Meanwhile, a Dutch social enterprise company has launched its latest sustainable smartphone. The Fairphone 3 uses ethically sourced materials and is designed to be fully repairable and recyclable.

The Fairphone company is dedicated to reducing e-waste and delivering fully sustainable mobile phones, and it says that the latest version is the greenest, and smartest handset it has yet developed.

The latest phone has a quoted carbon footprint 30% lower than similar devices, with a slimmer body and better battery life than previous models.

Eva Gouwens, Fairphone CEO said:

“We envision an economy where consideration for people and the planet is a natural part of doing business and according to this vision, we have created scalable ways to improve our supply chain and product

“We developed the Fairphone 3 to be a real sustainable alternative on the market, which is a big step towards lasting change. By establishing a market for ethical products, we want to motivate the entire industry to act more responsibly since we cannot achieve this change alone.”

Around 150 million mobile phones are discarded each year in the US alone, even though more than 90% of the materials can be reused in new electronic devices.

Environmental impact

The Fairphone 3 has seven modules that can be swopped and replaced when they fail so keeping the main phone in use for much longer. In contrast, the mobile industry has been repeatedly accused of failing to do enough to boost recycling rates while designing handsets that are hard to upgrade.

The €450 phone is being promoted in the UK by Sky Mobile, which said that it to work with Fairphone as it wanted to offer customers more choice in minimising their environmental impact.

Sophia Ahmad, director of Sky Mobile said:

“We’re committed to creating a plastic-free future for our oceans by removing all single-use plastic by 2020 and ensuring high ethical standards are maintained across the business and our supply chain. It’s why we’re working with Fairphone, to give our customers the option to choose a sustainable mobile phone.”

Recycle your old gadgets

Some local authorities collect small electrical items as part of their kerbside collection, otherwise you can recycle these and larger items at selected retailers and at Household Waste Recycling Centres.

These items include phones, game consoles, CD/DVD players, TVs, printers, radios and cameras.

They also take alarm clocks and small kitchen appliances such as kettles, toasters and blenders; personal grooming products like hairdryers, straighteners, electric toothbrushes and shavers; garden tools such as lawnmowers and shredders; other items such as lamps, torches, vacuum cleaners, and smoke alarms.

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