Have you ever thought about what happens after you finish reading your newspaper or magazine and pop it in the recycling bin? Unlike many other materials, paper doesn’t pose a risk to the environment after it is used, as it can be – and most often is – recycled efficiently.
The paper recycling rate in Europe exceeds 70%, which is an excellent figure we can all be proud of! For most consumers, paper recycling comes as naturally as breathing. The wood fibre in paper can be reused up to seven times. After that, the fibre becomes too short and weak to make paper anymore, but even then it can be used as fuel for generating energy. You could hardly hope for a better example of circular economy in action.
Now, picture the same scenario for your mobile phone or tablet. What happens after it is broken or the model becomes outdated? Unfortunately most countries (if not all?) lack an effective recycling system for electronic devices. As reported by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, less than 10% of all mobile phones are dismantled and reused in the US. Part of the problem is that computers, phones and other devices are becoming increasingly complex and made of smaller and smaller components. Most phones and other electrical waste furthermore contain hazardous yet valuable and scarce materials. The circuit board alone might contain copper, gold, zinc, beryllium and tantalum. The coatings are in turn typically made of lead. What is more, phone makers are increasingly switching to lithium batteries, which are commonly thrown away, ending up in landfills or left hanging around in drawers. There are two challenges related to the recycling of electronic waste: First, as collection systems are undeveloped, consumers are unsure where and how to recycle. Second, if the device ends up being recycled, there is the risk that brokers calling themselves ‘recyclers’ export unscreened electronic waste to developing countries – which have ended up becoming a toxic dump yard for e-waste. The failure to recycle is also leading to a shortage in the rare earth minerals that will be needed to manufacture future generations of electronic equipment.
Today there are no official records on current volumes of e-waste, but the European Environmental Agency estimates that between 250,000 tonnes and 1.3 million tonnes of used electrical products are shipped out of the EU every year, mostly to West Africa and Asia. These goods may subsequently be processed in dangerous and inefficient conditions, harming the health of local people and damaging the environment. Uncontrolled burning, disassembly and disposal causes a variety of environmental problems such as groundwater contamination, atmospheric pollution, or even water pollution either due to immediate discharge or surface runoff (especially near coastal areas), as well as health problems arising from unsafe methods of processing the waste.
Mobile phones have become the top source of e-waste, because they are not made to last more than two years. According to UNEP, the amount of e-waste being produced – including mobile phones and computers – could rise by as much as 500 per cent over the next decade in countries such as India. Obviously, then, the problem of e-waste is growing rapidly, and the need for safe and responsible recycling is increasing.
Next time you buy a new mobile phone or tablet, take the old one back to the store and insist that it be recycled responsibly – this is our responsibility as consumers. Ask questions and pressure the producer to come up with a sustainable solution. Consumer power is great – let’s use it! And next time you enjoy a magazine and take it to the recycling bin, you can do it with a clear conscience, knowing that the paper will not damage the environment – it will be reused as valuable raw material. Especially if the paper product carries an ecolabel such as the EU Ecolabel, you can rest assured that the entire production process meets the strictest possible environmental standards.