Poison phones

Millions are rotting on tips, harming the environment. Jason Nissé uncovers an initiative to recycle mobiles
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The Independent Online

Hidden in drawers, stuck in boxes in the loft or simply thrown away and rotting on landfill sites are an estimated 105 million old mobile phones in Britain alone.

Hidden in drawers, stuck in boxes in the loft or simply thrown away and rotting on landfill sites are an estimated 105 million old mobile phones in Britain alone.

They are leaking cadmium, nickel, copper, lithium, beryllium and tantalum into our environment, while the plastics in the phone casings could take 5,000 years to biodegrade naturally. With a European Commission directive about to come into force making the disposal of old electrical goods their responsibility, this is a giant headache for manufacturers and retailers.

And with 45 million people in the UK using a mobile phone – whose average life is only 18 months before it is lost, broken or replaced because it has gone out of fashion – this adds up to some 30 million models a year joining the mobile mountain.

But a scheme to be launched this week by a leading environmental company, and backed by the mobile operators, could provide at least a partial solution.

Shields Environmental, one of the UK's biggest waste-disposal firms, is to launch a service called Fonebak which will take back old mobiles and dispose of them in an environmentally friendly way. The nickel in old batteries can be recycled for saucepans, irons and batteries; the lithium in new-style batteries can be ex- tracted and used by the pharmaceutical sector; some of the plastics can be burnt at Shields' specialist recycler in Sweden; and other plastics can be made into traffic cones.

Gordon Shields, chairman of the company, reckons that it can comfortably deal with the 15 million mobiles that find their way on to local authority landfill sites every year, representing an astonishing 1,500 tonnes of potentially hazardous waste.

The other 90 million are believed to be still hanging around people's homes, and no one knows what will happen to them in the future.

The urgent need for Fonebak and other schemes that are likely to follow has been sparked by the proposed Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) Directive, which is currently passing through the European Parliament.

If, as expected, it becomes law, all manufacturers and retailers will have to take back the old mobiles, TVs, stereos and fridges they have sold and recycle them.

The fridge quandary has already been highlighted by retailers such as Dixons, which have pointed out that the UK does not have the facilities to deal with the million old fridges a year that would be returned.

But hopefully mobiles will not be quite such a problem.

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