Recycle like our planet depends on it

Our mobile phones are a treasure trove of rare and precious metals, from the cobalt in lithium batteries to the gold and palladium in the circuitry. They are a miracle of chemistry and engineering.

Just as miraculous is the way in which these ingredients got there, formed in the cataclysmic events of dying stars and mined at vast expense and effort across all corners of the Earth.

Rare earth concentrate ready for processing.
Rare earth concentrate ready for processing. CREDIT:TREVOR COLLENS

Those supplies from space are all we have. The Earth will not be getting any more soon, even with the most optimistic visions of space mining asteroids or even our moon. We need to preserve what we have and ensure that we reuse everything we can from our devices.

The latest research shows that Australians have 4.2 million broken phones just lying around in homes and businesses across the country. Rather than think of these as junk to throw out, they are in fact an enormous stockpile of valuable resources that we can recycle and use in new products.

In fact, 95 per cent of the phone can be recycled: from the glass screens; to the cobalt in the batteries, and more. This is no happy accident but rather years of design and engineering effort to make phones easier to recycle in the first place, and the recycling process more effective at the end of the device’s life.

I was able to see this process first-hand at a recycling centre recently, with phones stripped down to their basic components, and any data-carrying parts immediately broken and ultimately shredded to ensure complete data security. What I saw was only a few weeks’ worth of collected and returned phones and accessories, and the scale of the opportunity to reuse the resources from so many devices is truly staggering.

Old and broken mobile phones can be recycled: from the glass screens; to the cobalt in the batteries, and more.
Old and broken mobile phones can be recycled: from the glass screens; to the cobalt in the batteries, and more.CREDIT:AP

The lithium, as well as nickel and cobalt, in the batteries are removed from devices and go straight into a new generation of batteries. The glass screens are removed, crushed and melted into new glass, while the electronic circuitry gets shredded and melted to liberate those precious metals.

The growing demand for cobalt as we move to electric cars gives us even more reason to reuse what we have already mined through recovering the cobalt in damaged and old lithium ion batteries such as the ones in your old mobile.

Now imagine we could recycle all these broken phones with none left in dusty cupboards and long-forgotten drawers. It might seem like I’m being ambitious but when I asked Australians last year, we managed to collect and recycle 800,000 phones – that’s an entire blue whale’s weight of devices.

As a society I believe we’re up for this challenge as it does so much more than just clean up your office. By reusing the materials from all these old phones we prevent the need to mine new material, conserving 8274 tonnes of mineral resources – or over 1300 African elephants, to put that in perspective.

This also means we will save 1621 tonnes of CO2 emissions from entering the atmosphere through that mining effort, equivalent to planting 42,000 trees.

The world is not receiving any new metals or precious materials, and we are seeing our existing reserves used at a staggering rate, which makes this reuse of what we have extracted so critical. Once Australians have experienced how easy it is to recycle their phones, you’ll start to wonder what else in your life that you buy can, and should, be that easy to recycle as well.

This is a vision known as the circular economy, in which the things we buy are designed to be easily recycled into new products, rather than going straight to landfill contaminating groundwater, the soil, and using up precious resources.

The challenge is immense. A 2019 study found that only one sixth of the 54 millions of tonnes of e-waste that year was recycled, the rest went to the tip. There’s now so much e-waste in landfill that CSIRO is exploring biomining them using bacteria to break down and liberate the metals rather than chemical leaching.

Wonderful as these ideas are, the simplest and best approach is to stop those phones, accessories, cables, and all the other e-waste from ever going to landfill in the first place.

Our world’s past was forged in the embers of ancient stars but its future depends on you and that old or broken phone.

Professor Alan Duffy from Swinburne University of Technology is an astronomer, science communicator and ambassador for MobileMuster.

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