Recycling venture aims to scale mobile phone mountain

Environment minister Michael Meacher applauds the business-led environmental venture, warning that the government can be too slow to act on green issues
Written by Graeme Wearden, Contributor

The British government lent its support on Tuesday to a new environmental scheme that is aiming to reuse or recycle the stockpile of 90 million mobile phones lying unused in the UK -- a pile that is expanding by up to 15 million per year.

The Fonebak scheme is the first mobile phone recycling scheme to involve all five of the UK's mobile phone operators as well as the Dixons Group of retail stores. It claims to benefit both business and the environment, and if successful it should significantly reduce the amount of potentially harmful waste produced by the mobile phone industry.

Michael Meacher, minister of state for the environment, hailed Fonebak as a major breakthrough and congratulated the mobile phone industry and the company behind the scheme, Shield Environmental.

"Fonebak encapsulates everything that the government wants to achieve with industry and the environment. This is exactly what's needed," Meacher said, speaking at a press conference on Tuesday morning.

The government is delighted with Fonebak, according to Meacher, because the scheme aims to reuse as many phones as possible, refurbishing them before shipping them to consumers in developing parts of the world.

Phones, chargers and accessories that can't be reused will be recycled. This means rather than simply throwing them into landfill sites, the handsets -- which include precious metals such as platinum and silver, as well as lithium and in some cases cadmium -- are carefully broken down and their constituent parts recovered for later use.

"Fonebak so clearly fits with government policy, because it puts the priority on reuse. Reuse is at the top of the environmental league," explained Meacher.

Meacher added that it is important for companies to solve environmental problems such as this, as the government often moves too slowly to be of much help. "It's important that industry don't wait for government or laws to fix these issues, as they are often too slow. Companies must be proactive and get on with the job," the minister insisted.

Gordon Shield, chief executive of Shield Environmental, explained that 15 million mobile phones are effectively made redundant each year when a user upgrades their handsets, which equates to 1,500 tonnes of potential hazardous waste. According to estimates, there is a total of 90 million handsets lying unused in Britain.

"Fonebak enables people to have a mobile phone while also looking after the environment," Shield said.

Shield Environmental has been trialling the Fonebak scheme for the last 12 months. In this time over one million phones have been reused, and over 105 tonnes of handsets, batteries and accessories have been processed and recycled.

Unwanted mobile phones can be posted to Fonebak, and all five mobile operators are expected to provide special Freepost envelopes to their customers. Handsets can also be dropped in at Currys, Dixons, The Link and PC World stores, or at the retail outlets of the mobile operators.

Shield explained that mobile operators are likely to provide incentives -- such as reduced prices for new handsets -- to encourage people to use the scheme.

No mobile phone manufacturers have signed up for Fonebak, though. According to Shield, this is because the manufacturers are concerned about the reuse side of the scheme. "We hope they come forward, because reuse is at the heart of our policy," Shield said.

Given that companies such as Nokia, Motorola and Ericsson are already suffering from disappointing sales figures, a scheme that aims to extend the life of existing models seems unlikely to get their backing -- at least until the mobile market picks up.

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