Did you know?

Life expectancy of various types of electronic products. Credit: CEA, CE Product Life Cycle Study (August 2014)

Cellphones have become extension of our body, in 2014 it was estimated that the number of cellphones exceeded for the first time the number of people on Earth. In Italy, as in several other Countries, there are more cellphones than people. And people keep changing their cellphones to get a smartphone or just the latest model.

In 2015 about 2 billion phones were sold worldwide, 1.45 billion being smartphones (and you can assume these latter were replacement of previous phones).

South Korea is ranking number one in terms of cellphone substitution, the average South Korean getting a new phone every 15.6 months (in one year and 3 months they can no longer stand their cellphone and need to get a new model). Surprisingly, at least for me, Chilean follow suit, changing their phones every 17.3 months. US are third (18.2) and UK citizens fourth (19.9). We, Italians, along with French, Danish, Dutch feel the urge to replace our phone every 2 years.

This creates a huge “replacement” business for phones manufacturers. It also creates a less perceived issue in recycling those phones. 

Every day (!), worldwide, over 4 million cellphones are discarded , 82,000 in Italy.

I didn’t realize that recycling of 42 cellphones would save enough energy to power an average US household for a year (an average Italian household for 2 years, an Indian one for over 4 years).  Yet only about 15% of cellphones are recycled (out of 70% that could be reused).

Clearly, cellphones manufacturers aren’t eager to see cellphones reused, they rather sell new ones!

Even without reusing cellphones, but just looking into recycling their components, there are some interesting facts to consider:


  • Cellphones contain toxic materials, like hexavalent chromium, arsenic, beryllium, and cadmium, that when disposed in landfills find their way to our bodies using drinkable water, vegetables and fruits as vector;
  • The recycling of a single smart phone lithium battery would prevent contamination of  60,000 liters of water;
  •  If we would recycle one day of cellphones “dump” we would obtain 

    - 1,361 Kg of silver, 

    - 90 Kg of palladium, 

    - 127 Kg of gold, 

    - 63,502 Kg of copper

Although cellphones numbers are staggering, eWaste, that is the total waste deriving from electronic products, is much worse. In a city up to 5% of the total solid waste is eWaste and even more important the urban waste is growing by 1.2% each year but the eWaste is growing 8% per year! 

EIT Digital, Climate and Raw Material KIC have joined forces to tackle the eWaste issue. As for all waste, but even more so for eWaste, one needs to take a holistic approach, starting from design/manufacturing to the usage/dismissal of the product. There are technology aspects as well as cultural/education aspects.

The KICs are ideally positioned to tackle this area, and they want to do this in partnership with institutions and territories.  A first report on the role that innovation can play in this area will be discussed in a Workshop in December 2016. Stay tuned.

Author - Roberto Saracco

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