A new world, saved by circles

Imagine a world where the things we buy don’t end their lives in landfill, but rather are turned into components for reuse in another product.

Instead of a straight line from the shop to the tip, it’s a circle than never ends: a circular economy. As defined by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation this is “a systemic approach to economic development designed to benefit businesses, society, and the environment. In contrast to the ‘take-make-waste’ linear model, a circular economy is regenerative by design and aims to gradually decouple growth from the consumption of finite resources.”

We go to extraordinary lengths to mine precious resources from across the Earth and transport these finite resources in vast quantities to create new consumer products, particularly electronic devices. The effort uses enormous amounts of energy, water and other resources. We then often ship these products across the globe to their final markets, adding more energy and carbon emissions to the total. 

Almost every adult in the developed world owns a smartphone. This electronic device has changed lives, societies and economies. But when an old phone is no longer of use, we throw it into a desk drawer or cupboard – letting all the materials and energy that have gone into making it go to waste.

These materials include small amounts of gold, silver, copper and platinum to make the electronics in the circuit board, joined together by tin and palladium solder, with lithium in the battery, neodymium – a rare-earth element, for the strong magnetics that form the basis of the speakers – and tungsten, used in making the phone vibrate. Alongside this cornucopia of minerals and metals goes crude oil as the basis of the plastics, bauxite ore turned into aluminum casings, and silica for the glass screen.

As you can see, a modern phone is a vast investment of ingredients, as well as energy for their transport and fabrication. It seems unimaginable that we’d just let them lie in that desk drawer or cupboard.

The scale on which this occurs is also hard to imagine. The latest research by MobileMuster shows there are 24.5 million mobile phones lying unused in homes across the country. That’s nearly an additional, unused phone for every single person in Australia. Neary half of those polled just want a spare to hand, in case their main device breaks – but the data shows that we hardly ever need to use that backup.

Another 28% of those surveyed say they haven’t gotten around to selling or recycling the old phone, which is a shame. Selling – or giving – your phone to friends or family will ensure the resources in the phone can circulate in the economy for longer. 

Taken together, these statistics mean that nearly two-thirds of Australians have more than one device lying around. 

Imagine if those resources were reused in the circular economy. Imagine the savings in all the climate-change-causing emissions in the transport and extraction of them. The key is to work at scale, making the recycling processes economically viable, and making a global impact.

It may take a while for Australians to send in those just-in-case spare devices to join the circular economy, but what about the nearly five million mobiles in homes that are actually broken? Recycling your broken mobile is a great first step in Australia’s new circular economy journey as over 95% of materials are recovered.

If your broken phone is recycled it’s first sorted and disassembled into various components: think the batteries, printed circuit boards, casing, screens, accessories and packaging. The circuit boards are shredded, preventing any potential loss of private data, and the metals recovered for reuse. Aluminium casings are some of the easiest materials to recover: they’re simply melted and placed in moulds to create new aluminium products. The plastics are turned into pellets that are the feedstock for new products such as pallets, requiring significantly less energy than making plastic from scratch. The glass screens are melted/crushed and used for either new glass products or as replacement materials in roads.

A circular economy converts something we see as unwanted – five million mobile phones lying idle in Australian households – into a vast stockpile of untapped resources. If all were recycled, we’d save 9,850 tonnes of minerals needing to be extracted. And as mobile phones have rare metals including indium, gold, silver, nickel, copper and zinc, the impact of recycling even small amounts of these elements from a single phone is considerable. We’d also save 1,930 tonnes of CO2 emissions, equivalent to planting 50,000 trees. 

The way we use and dispose of our mobile phones contributes to their environmental footprint. In our efforts to combat climate change we have to explore this circular economy approach, which can be applied to all the products we buy and use.

As consumers, we have a critical role to play. We have to look for and buy products that are made from recycled materials and are suitable for recycling or reuse. We can’t fashion a sustainable planet without sustainable economies and consumer behaviours. 

So take the first steps on that never-ending circular journey for yourself and the Earth: walk to a collection point with your spare mobile (or apply for a free prepaid envelope to send it in!) and set it on the path to reuse. 

Professor Alan Duffy is MobileMuster’s new ambassador for their #GoForZero campaign in March – to see no broken phones left in homes across Australia.

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