A handful of old mobile phones – different makes and models, all different sizes and colours – lay in a grey bucket. They are about to be chopped into thousands of unrecognizable pieces.
These outdated and unused devices will be given a second life as recycled e-waste. But many phones won’t.
The growing challenge of e-waste
According to the latest estimates, the world discards approximately 50 million metric tonnes of e-waste annually. E-waste is full of hazardous material – including mercury, cadmium and lead – that can cause damage to human health and the environment if not managed properly.
But only 20% of global e-waste is recycled. The rest ends up in landfill, burned or illegally traded every year – or is not recycled at all.
In Switzerland alone, a country with a population of just 8.4 million people, there are an estimated 8-10 million smartphones lying unused in homes throughout the country.
“It’s mostly emotional; people are very sentimental about their cell phones,” said Lovey Wymann, Communications for Swico, Switzerland’s digital e-waste agency.
Good collection culture
And yet, Switzerland is a good example of how to deal with the growing environmental issue.
Despite being one of the biggest global producers of e-waste – producing 184 kilotons in 2016 – the country collects and recycles roughly 75% of this discarded material, with 134 kilotonnes recovered in 2015. When it comes specifically to digital e-waste (for example, mobile phones and other devices), the recycling rate in 2018 was as high as 95%.
This is thanks to a strong and convenient voluntary ‘take-back’ system, where consumers can take e-waste to a dedicated recycling collection point or any electronic shop that sells the same type of equipment throughout the country.
Recycling challenge #1 – dangerous goods
Though the Swiss system can be considered a role model for e-waste recycling management, it faces the same global challenges as every nation.
“Recycling e-waste has always been very challenging,” said Markus Stengele, Head of Quality, Environment and Safety at the e-waste recycling facility Solenthaler Recycling AG (Sorec) in St. Gallen, north-east Switzerland.
“At the moment, everyone is focusing on lithium-ion batteries. We have the problem that they aren’t easy to take out and they self-ignite. This makes it more dangerous for the people working at the facility and transporting the material,” Stengele said.
While built-in lithium ion batteries pose a significant risk to those handling the goods, the only way to remove these potentially dangerous components is with a bar and hammer. As such, it is the manufacturers’ responsibility to make the process easier and safer, he says.
“Producers need to be more transparent and indicate better, where the harmful substances are, and how they can be removed,” Stengele said.
Recycling challenge #2 – processing the material
Once the battery is removed, e-waste is sorted, shredded, and separated into its different component parts – metals, plastics, glass, and other materials.
Roughly 70% of the device can be recycled. “It can be lower, it can be higher, of course, depending on the equipment,” said Heinz Böni, Head CARE (Critical Materials and Resource Efficiency) group at Empa, a material research institute in St. Gallen and Eastern Switzerland.
“Mobile phones — from a material perspective, from a value perspective, and also from an environmental impact perspective — are very important, because when you can recover gold or silver or palladium, which you don’t have to get from primary mines, you can you can reduce a lot of environmental impact of primary mining,” he said.
The material that cannot be recycled is used for other purposes like construction material or is burned to generate energy – but this presents an additional challenge.
“Different materials have to be further processed because we had don’t have much end-processing in Switzerland. … The rest goes to other countries and gets further processed,” said Böni.
“Recycling e-waste has always been very challenging,” said Markus Stengele, Head of Quality, Environment and Safety at Solenthaler Recycling AG (Sorec)
As developed EU nations face renewed criticism for illegally exporting e-waste to developing nations, ensuring a tight monitoring system of this material is crucial. Empa carries out conformity assessments to ensure that recycling practices follow Swiss regulations, Böni said.
“Of course, we cannot follow each and every atom. That’s not possible. But we concentrate on those materials which are critical and those materials where we see there are downstream processes which are essential for decontamination – for example, the plastics,” said Böni. “We need to know how well they are doing that in order that we know, if it’s not in Switzerland, that what they are doing would be compatible to what we would do in Switzerland.”
All exported e-waste requires the authorization from the Federal Office for the Environment, and exporting such waste materials to countries that are not in the EU or OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) is prohibited.
“As soon as something is in the system in Switzerland, since we are also a landlocked country, we don’t have problems with ports where you cannot so easily control the material or going out of the country. We have, I would say, a very watertight system in Switzerland,” Böni said.
For the past 15 years, Switzerland has been actively encouraging and supporting environmentally friendly electronic and electrical waste disposal practices in developing countries, including Peru, Colombia and Egypt.
Although Switzerland’s e-waste system is unique and not easily replicable around the world – reinforced by a strong recycling culture within the country – they are happy to share lessons learned.
“From what we have learned in this 25 years of voluntary recycling in Switzerland, we share our knowledge, we share our experience and we are happy if other people pick up on it,” said Wymann.
Reported and written by Lucy Spencer. Video shot and produced by Katya Skvortsova. First published at ITU News.