The blood on your phone: Why you must recycle your old mobile

One Change: Give up your old phone - it’s made with precious materials that can be recycled

The link between the presence of Congolese people in Irish direct provision centres and the mobile phones in our pockets may be hard to trace at first. It’s to do with the complex interconnectedness of our world and how the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is the source of more than 60 per cent of the world’s cobalt – a key component of the lithium-ion battery in your phone.

The sudden peak in demand for this metallic element has led to widespread violence and corruption in the DRC, with tribal warfare and child slavery now rife in the northeast of the country where cobalt is mined. Hundreds of thousands of people have been forced to flee and, inevitably, some end up on our shores.

The complexity of the situation is beyond the remit of this column, but the one element that is within our control is our use of cobalt. Every ounce extracted for use in mobile phones further contributes to violence in the region, and so we need to make sure we consume as little of it as possible.

We have a duty to ensure our phones last as long as possible and are then correctly recycled.

Almost every part of our phones can be reused or recycled, but we're evidently not doing this as there are 4.9 million unused devices in Ireland right now, and a further 23,964 tonnes of old handsets lying idle in the world (according to a study carried out in November 2020). For every 100 people in Ireland there are 87 phones, and there are a further 101 disused phones for every 100 people. We need to tackle this; the sooner the better, as the older a phone is the harder it is to find a new user.

So, the One Change we can embark on this week is to gather up our old phones and sell them to a local repair shop, or online at the likes of eBay or Facebook Marketplace. Alternatively, donate them to a charity who can earn money by selling them in bulk for recycling. Or just take the old handsets to a civic amenity site (look at your local authority's website for locations) or WEEE recycling point (there's a helpful map on weeeireland.ie), to be recycled with the electrical items. This ensures that each component is either disposed of safely or reused, and doesn't end up in landfill.

Better still, keep your phone in use. Give up this addiction to a new “free” handset from your mobile provider when the contract ends. Switching to a SIM-only contract can save a significant amount of money, which can then be put towards the cost of something more meaningful and less destructive.

In the medium term, the big challenge is to make phones more robust and repairable so that we keep them longer than the average three years. The annual climate impact of Europe’s stock of over 600 million smartphones is more than 14 million tonnes of CO2 – more than the annual emissions of Latvia.

It will take international intervention to force changes on the manufacturers, and to help focus the minds of European Union law makers on this goal there’s a petition you can sign at repair.eu/smartphones

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