Afterlife for 100,000,000 Disposed European Mobiles per Year?

Consumer appetite for the latest mobile phone technology seems inexhaustible judging by the popularity of specialist high street chains, such as Carphone Warehouse, in the UK(see earlier O2 post). Despite this ebullient market the mobile phone manufacturers face a conundrum – delighted with the prospect of increased sales the makers have to also address tough European legislation calling for significant improvements in recycling of all electronic gadgets...The European Union ‘Waste from Electrical and Electronic Equipment’ Directive (otherwise known by the unfortunate acronym, WEEE) is aiming at combatting, amongst other things, the avalanche of 100 million phones disposed of annually in Europe alone.

WEEE is driving some interesting new research initiatives. Motorola are working with Dr Kerry Kirwan of Warwick University and PVAXX Research & Development to perfect a compostable casing from a biodegradable polymer. As the casing disintegrates it provides a natural seedbed for an embedded dwarf sunflower seed…bringing a smile to the marketeer as the issue of recycling the electronic innards is put into soft focus. But as the old saying goes, ‘From little acorns…’

In contrast, Nokia are addressing the whole life cycle, not just end-of-life, by providing an ‘Eco Declaration’ for each model. This gives information on the metals and processes avoided or minimised during manufacture and data on energy consumption, the latter being a key impact during the life cycle. How consumers make sense of this is anyone’s guess but standard ‘energy labels’ across the mobile phone industry, as used for EU washing machines, would help.

Old phones are repaired or recycled via their Club Nokia Service Points or can be sent directly to Nokia via Freepost Environmental Recycle. Conscious of its environmental responsibilities Nokia is experimenting giving old phones new lives. Using the capabilities of the clock and memory functions discarded phones are being converted into new gizmos including alarm clocks, games consoles, cameras, PDAs and even remote TV controls.

Patents have already been filed, but such initiatives will barely make a dent in the 15 million phones thrown away each year in the UK. Nor will this initiative improve the dismal recycling rate of one in twenty five. Another problem is the mesmerising range of models on offer. Typical of a leading brand, Nokia has 59 ‘current’ and 26 ‘archive’ models. This design ‘differentiation’ strategy significantly complicates end-of-life disposal but more importantly encourages planned obsolescence with consumers reputedly changing their phones every 18 months.

As recent muted consumer response to 3G phones has shown, users are becoming wary of committing to a new generation of telephony services. Nor do they wish to keep consigning perfectly usable phones to desk drawer duty, a recycling scheme or a landfill. The mid-term report to the mobile makers is ‘could do much, much better’.


[by © Alastair Fuad-Luke, 2005.]