Toxic waste in mobile phones may still pose a threat to the Australian environment despite the Federal government's voluntary, industry-sponsored handset recycling scheme.
The handset manufacturing industry's peak representative body, the Australian Mobile Telecommunications Association (AMTA), has revealed that the collection scheme -- the Mobile Phone Industry Recycling Program (MPIRP) -- has only caught a fraction of the estimated 5.5 million mobiles retired since it started in 1999.
"With obsolesce, updating, non-serviceability of handsets, etcetera, we believe that our collections to-date have been just under 5 percent of that total amount that should be collected," said AMTA recycling general manager, Glenn Brown.
AMTA is now conducting a full strategic review of the scheme and plans to deliver its findings to NSW and Federal environmental protection authorities in the near future.
According to the Australian Conservation Foundation, the NSW government has given mobile phone waste a high priority because of the environmental threat posed by heavy metals and other dangerous chemicals contained in their batteries.
AMTA claims that the batteries don't impose an immediate threat to the environment. According to the industry group, many mobiles are refurbished and sold offshore while the majority of what remains is more likely to be cluttering drawers in homes and offices than clogging the country's rubbish bins.
"Our view is that in the general public, the majority of people don't feel that dumping a battery of any sort into the rubbish bin is the right thing to do," said Brown.
AMTA is currently making an attempt to find out how many batteries will end up in landfill as a part of its strategic review.
"We're conducting a survey to ascertain consumer behaviour and attitudes toward electronic waste and come up with some sound formula to calculate that," said Brown.
Susie Brown, ACF sustainability campaigner agrees that mobile phones are more likely to be stored than dumped. However, she is concerned at the apparent lack of knowledge about the situation and she says that the batteries will end up in landfill eventually, unless consumers are given an adequate recycling scheme.
"That's a real issue from a resource waste point of view," said the ACF's Brown.
AMTA and the ACF agree that recycling scheme isn't being promoted to the public enough.
"The biggest issue that consumers face is that they're not necessarily aware that they can recycle phones," said AMTA's Brown.
But reaching a consensus on how to promote the scheme may be harder to achieve.
AMTA wants the state and federal governments to promote the scheme via schools and other community education programs. However, the ACF and the Australian government both seem to favour approach that pushes responsibility back onto industry.
"I think it's the responsibility of the manufacturers and retailers to promote that because it's their products that are causing the waste and the retail outlets are the collection points," said the ACF's Susie Brown.
AMTA says any action taken to promote the scheme would be on behalf of the community and should, therefore, come from public resources.
"It's on their behalf if there is a threat by the action of the consumer throwing the phone into a rubbish bin. And, I do believe it's a consumer issue not a manufacturer issue," he said.
However the DEH said it hadn't been approached by AMTA for assistance to promote the program and that it would prefer to the see the promotional costs covered by an increase on the existing recycling levy on mobile phones.
"In economic terms it is generally preferable to internalise product costs in the product price as rather than imposing them as a cost on the broader community of taxpayers," said a spokesperson for the Federal Department of Environment and Heritage today.
But the levy -- split between carriers and manufacturers -- was only designed to increase with collection volumes; the less successful the scheme, the less that manufacturers pay.
"It used to be a dollar but we dropped it down to 42 cents because of the low volumes we were getting," said AMTA's Brown.
AMTA warned the government that unless the industry's contributions to the scheme were kept to a minimum, then consumers were likely to feel the impact at the cash register.
"If they were getting squeezed on the bottom line would find some way to hand those costs onto consumers," he said.
Nokia, the biggest importer of mobile phones in Australia, yesterday praised the program describing it as "world-class".
"Nokia Australia is a proud supporter of this program and indeed we are one of the larger financial contributors to the scheme," said Nokia spokeswoman, Louise Ingram.
Other manufacturers contacted for this report including Sony-Ericsson and Motorola failed to respond in time for publication.
The MPIRP has collected around 750,000 batteries since 1999. AMTA currently estimates the rate at which new mobile phones are currently entering the Australian market has climbed to 5 million per year.