An unfortunate consequence of our collective lust for shiny new gadgets is a growing mountain (sometimes literally) of electronic waste. Many of our devices are difficult to recycle, and much of our electronic waste ends up in landfills, where toxic chemicals can seep into the soil and contaminate the local water supply.
The Global E-Wste Statistics Partnership estimates that we produce more than 50 million tons of e-waste each year and recycle only 20 percent. We throw away phones, monitors and countless other devices that could be refurbished and put back into service or disassembled to harvest useful materials inside.
But how do you persuade manufacturers to get involved? Waste Compensation Company Closing the Loop (CTL) connects technology makers with local communities to consume technology more sustainably. Today, the company announced its agreement with Vodafone in Germany, where the telecommunications company promises that “for every mobile phone sold to private customers, we put an old one back.”
Money for old phones
Vodafone intends to do so in part through the One for One initiative, whereby CTL buys devices that are completely unusable or irreparable at the end of its useful life, using collection networks based primarily in Ghana, Nigeria and Cameroon. Instead of ending up in landfills, these devices are professionally recycled to extract gold, silver, copper and cobalt that can be returned to circulation.
CTL worked with Samsung and T-Mobile a couple of years ago on a similar scheme, but on a much smaller scale, for the Galaxy S10e in the Netherlands. He has also worked with KPMG, the Dutch government and Expereo, but this agreement with Vodafone is the biggest so far. It promises to recycle at least 1 million old cell phones every year.
“How do you make e-waste reduction commercially attractive to people?” asks Joost de Kluijver, director of CTL. “We want business people to be interested in sustainability.”
De Kluijver is convinced that the road to better recycling is to build a business case that can drive formal collection, create a demand for more e-waste to collect and fund local plans. It is a pragmatic approach. There is also hope that Vodafone will benefit from this program by gathering and retaining more customers, demonstrating to other major technology brands that people care about how e-waste is managed.
In addition to the CTL program, Vodafone is also announcing its GigaGreen Re-Trade program, which aims to get old smartphones out of the drawers (there are an estimated 200 million in Germany alone) and return to the circulation making it fast and swift. It’s easy for people to change them. Answer a few questions, and Vodafone software analyzes your phone for a free exchange and shipping price.
What goes around
While it is better to do nothing, this type of waste compensation scheme raises some issues and possible concerns for green washing. The people at iFixit say that recycling should be the last resort. Even when phones are recycled properly using the latest techniques, what can really be recovered is very limited. Ideally, phones should be refurbished before recycling.
The iFixit team also expressed concern about the environmental cost of transportation. Many countries do not have the infrastructure and experience to recycle locally. CTL sends the devices it collects to recycling plants in Europe, although it claims that the climate balance is positive and plans to support the construction of recycling infrastructure directly in developing countries. But for CTL and others, like World Loop, sending e-waste to Europe is the lesser of two evils when the alternative is informal recycling or landfill.