The number of phones being handed in for recycling has sky-rocketed in NSW and Victoria in the lead up to Telstra's shutdown of its CDMA network.
"We've seen double our normal volumes and that's predominantly because of the upcoming CDMA closure," managing director of e-waste recycler Will LeMessurier told ZDNet.com.au.
A month would normally see the recycling company process 10 tons of mobile phones under the Australian Mobile Telecommunications Association (ATMA) Mobile Muster take-back program, however, LeMessurier said Telstra's CDMA closure has seen that grow to 20 tons.
"It's been a kick start — anything from accessories and phones that networks are clearing out of stores," he said.
While around 1.2 million Australian mobile phones become redundant each year, less than half of these are recycled — leaving some 640,000 units to be dumped in landfill.
What happens to the phones?
LeMessurier's company disassembles the phones at two plants in Sydney's west and Melbourne. Circuit boards, plastic accessories, and batteries make up the bulk of the materials processed.
MRI separates high from low value components, as well as ferrous from non-metal materials, after which each type of material is sent either to landfill, or offshore recycling companies that specialise in dealing with certain materials.
Circuit boards — the highest value component — are sent by MRI to an ISO 14000 accredited site in South Korea.
"The handsets are broken apart and the circuit boards sent to South Korea. You get about 50,000 boards per ton, which you might get one-and-a-half to two kilograms per ton of gold out of after processing fees."
Compared to gold mining extraction rates, the figure is quite high — a mine operator would be happy with 15 grams per ton, said Le Messurier.
Although the mobile phone industry has phased out lead in the solder used on circuit boards, many of the phones being recycled today were manufactured 15 years ago and contain harmful materials.
Batteries, another major pollutant of the mobile phone industry, no longer contain harmful elements such as nickel cadmium. Instead, the mobile industry has turned to lithium-ion, lessening the risk for workers who handle the batteries.
"Lithium-ion is classed as a non-hazardous material and is more an occupational health and safety issue because of the effect of lithium in the presence of moisture, which gives off hydrogen and contains very small quantities of lithium — less than one percent. It is under review and may change," said LeMessurier.
Many of the batteries used in mobile phones are exported to South Korea, said LeMessurier.
Compared to the computer industry, LeMessurier said the mobile phone industry's environmental standards are higher.
"There is a huge quantity of white box component assemblers who don't care about design for disassembly. That's because the computer industry is much more fragmented, whereas the mobile phone industry is a closed shop," he said.