unfortunate consequences Our collective desire for shiny new gadgets is a growing mountain (sometimes literally) of e-waste. We have too much equipment to recycle, a lot of our e-waste ends up in landfills, and toxic chemicals can seep into the ground and contaminate local water supplies.
The Global Partnership for E-Waste Statistics estimates that we generate more than 50 million tons of e-waste each year, of which only 20% is recycled. We throw away cell phones, monitors and countless other devices that may be refurbished and put back into service, or dismantled to collect useful materials inside.
But how to convince manufacturers to participate? Waste compensation company Closing the Loop (CTL) connects tech manufacturers with local communities to consume tech more sustainably. Today, the company announced a deal with Germany’s Vodafone, in which the telco promises “for every phone sold to a private customer, we’ll put an old phone back into circulation.”
old phone money
Vodafone intends to achieve this in part through a “one-to-one” program, whereby CTL uses a collection network mainly located in Ghana, Nigeria and Cameroon to purchase end-of-life equipment that is completely unusable or irreparable. Instead of ending up in landfill, these devices are professionally recycled to extract gold, silver, copper and cobalt that can be recycled.
A few years ago, CTL launched a similar program with Samsung and T-Mobile for the Galaxy S10e in the Netherlands, but on a much smaller scale. It has also partnered with KPMG, the Dutch government and Expereo, but the Vodafone deal is the largest to date. It promises to recycle at least 1 million old phones a year.
“How do you make e-waste reduction commercially attractive to people?” asked Joost de Kluijver, director of CTL. “We want to get business people interested in sustainability.”
De Kluijver firmly believes that the path to better recycling is to build a business case that can drive formal collection, create demand for more e-waste collection and fund local programs. This is a pragmatic approach. Vodafone also hopes to benefit from the program by attracting and retaining more customers, demonstrating to other big tech brands that people care about how e-waste is handled.
In addition to its plans with CTL, Vodafone has also announced its GigaGreen re-trading program, which aims to get old smartphones out of the drawer (an estimated 200 million in Germany alone) and make them quick and easy by making them put back into circulation. It’s easy for people to trade in old ones for new ones. You answer a few questions, and Vodafone’s software analyzes your phone to offer trade-in prices and free shipping.
what’s around here
While better than nothing, this waste compensation scheme raises some questions and potential greenwashing issues. The folks at iFixit say recycling should be a last resort. Even if a phone is properly recycled using the latest technology, there is a very limited amount of what can actually be recycled. Ideally, phones should be refurbished repeatedly before recycling.
The iFixit team also raised concerns about the environmental cost of shipping. Many countries lack the infrastructure and expertise to do recycling locally. CTL is shipping the equipment it collects to recycling plants in Europe, although it claims climate balance is positive and plans to directly support the building of recycling infrastructure in developing countries. But for other companies such as CTL and World Loop, shipping e-waste to Europe is the lesser of two evils, and the alternative is informal recycling or landfilling.
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