Asia mobile recycling yield beats Europe

Low labor cost in region allows mobile phone recycling plant to recover nearly 100 percent in recycling process through manual labor, says Nokia.

SINGAPORE--The raw material recovery rate for one handset vendor is higher in Asia than in Europe due to low labor costs that allow workers to be employed to separate materials before the recycling process, said a Nokia spokesperson.

"In the West, it's about 80 to 85 percent yield. Here, because we segregate the materials, we get about 99.5 percent yield." said Francis Cheong, Nokia's environmental affairs manager for Southeast Asia and the Pacific.

Nokia outsources its recycling efforts in the country to local recycling service, Total Environmental Solutions-Asset Material Management (TES-AMM).

Joe Vong, TES-AMM's general manager, explained that low labor costs allow the plant to employ people to separate the materials during what they call the "dismantling" process.

"In Europe, [the plants] have a different recycling management in which a whole phone is crushed and broken down. The recycle yield for this is close to 70 to 80 percent," said Vong. "This is unlike what we do in Asia, where we crush the plastic and boards separately so we get about 95 to 97 percent yield."

At the Singapore plant, mobile phones are dismantled by human agents who categorize different parts of the phones into different "streams". Vong described the separation process as the "choke point". He added that personnel must be very familiar with the materials they are working with and, on average, process 20 to 30 phones per hour in an 8-hour work day.

Cheong said Nokia collects roughly 1.5 to 2 tons of e-waste each month from the Southeast Asia and Pacific region from the public as well as R&D centers, but did not divulge how much of this waste is derived from mobile phones.

In a presentation, a spokesperson from the plant pointed out that its core business lies in "precious metal recovery from e-waste". Among the metal that can be recovered are copper, aluminum, nickel, alloy, and even gold.

However, turning waste into gold is not an easy process. Alex Hee, project manager at the plant, said it takes 50,000 to 80,000 phones to extract 1kg of gold.

Nokia's Cheong revealed that from the recovered material, the phone maker reclaims only the cobalt and lithium salts extracted from the recycled batteries, as these metals are very rare. These are then remade into new lithium-ion batteries.

Nokia this year has invested more than S$1 million (US$720,000) in social responsibility programs in the Southeast Asia and the Pacific region, most specifically in recycling and take-back initiatives, he said.

In a previous study in July 2008, Nokia noted that only 3 percent of the study's respondents recycled their mobile phones. To raise awareness for mobile phone recycling, the handset manufacturer undertakes initiatives to reach out to the local communities in Asia cities like Singapore, Malaysia, the Philippines and Thailand.