What happens when your smartphone goes kaput and you’ve decided it’s time to get a new one?
One of two things: you throw it in the garbage, or you recycle it by donating, selling or taking it to a local recycling kiosk or your cell carrier for a buy-back program. Cell Phones for Soldiers uses donated mobile phones to give free talk time to active-duty military and veterans, while the Hope Phones campaign trades in your well-used cell to get new technology for mobile medics in developing countries.
What you decide to do with that phone has a significant impact on the environment, says Michael Collins, President and CEO of eCycle Solutions, a company dedicated to recycling electronic waste, or “e-waste,” and safely disposing of non-reusable parts and materials.
Consumption numbers should come as a wakeup call. The Environmental Protection Agency says that if Americans recycled the roughly 130 million cell phones that are disposed of annually, enough energy would be saved to power more than 24,000 homes in a year, Scientific American reports. And for every million cell phones we recycle, we can recover about 35,000 pounds of copper, 800 pounds of silver, 75 pounds of gold and 30 pounds of palladium – conserving those natural resources and the energy and labour required to mine them.
“Before it starts to break down, the metals and plastics can be toxic to the environment or be a potential fire hazard,” Collins says. “And if you stop and think about it, somewhere in your house you’ve got a drawer. And in that drawer are cords and plugs, and maybe an old tablet or an old computer in a closet someplace.”
It’s his business to be concerned about what people and businesses do with the growing amount of e-waste we produce. Because there’s nothing in that smartphone that can’t be repurposed.
eCycle Solutions, headquartered in Ontario, Canada, is an advocate for environmental stewardship, working closely with provincial collection programs and private partners like Best Buy and Staples to collect used electronics. Established in 2005, the company is also a leading provider of what has become an essential industry.
When your office decides to upgrade everyone’s computers and the workhorse printer, for example, eCycle steps in to remove all private data and break down the devices to take out harmful batteries, mercury, toner, ink and leaded glass for use by the company’s processing partners. Depending on the condition of electronics, some may be upcycled to schools or health facilities where there’s a need.
There’s also a huge emphasis on safety for the company’s 500-plus employees. Every mobile device contains lithium ion batteries, which are a fire hazard and explosive in a steel shredder. Advanced fire suppression systems and quality checks in the teardown lines make sure the chemicals can be safely handled and sent for recycling.
Aftermarket parts like steel and precious metals are sold to distributors for manufacturing new products. Palladium, now a highly valued precious metal, is a key component in exhaust systems in vehicles where it helps turn pollutants into less-damaging carbon dioxide and water vapour. It’s also widely used in dentistry, jewellery and, yes, electronics.
Our planet has limited raw materials, and the shift to supporting the circular economy – where long-lasting design, repair, reuse and remanufacturing protects the earth – is one that everyone has to make, Collins says. “We all have to be conscious of end-of-life use and have buy-in from the whole value chain. It’s really consumer demand driving the ball, and then you go to the front end of that chain as a manufacturer, asking what is he or she actually using to make and build that material?”
The good news is, electronics manufacturers are establishing more sustainable practices. U.S. smart speaker brand Sonos, for example, offers existing customers a 30 percent discount on new devices when their old smart speakers are deactivated and recycled. Similarly, Teracube launched a smartphone with a warranty that promotes recycling. If the phone is damaged, customers can pay a flat fee to get a refurbished phone, while their damaged one is repaired and sold to another buyer.
Legislators are also on board. The European Union, for one, is pushing for the adoption of a standardized charger for smartphones to reduce charger cord waste.
One of the most surprising things for Collins, at the company’s helm for 18 months, is the rapidly changing market for buyers of recycled parts and materials, which directly affects eCycle revenue.
“The downstreams where we take end-of-life product once it’s been recycled, those markets shift and change monthly,” he explains. “There was a glass company in Spain that used to take all of our CRT glass from your laptops or television display screens, using it to enhance ceramic products. So that little glitter you get in a ceramic tile actually comes from glass.”
In mid-2019, the Spanish government cut off those imports, so literally within a matter of 30 to 60 days, eCycle could no longer send that glass to the company and had to scramble to find a new buyer. eCycle also installed glass cutters in two of its facilities to remove the lead contaminant from display screen glass to appeal to a broader range of buyers.
The big challenge, Collins says, is, “how do you maintain your recyclables which represent anywhere from 40 to 50 percent of your revenue?” It’s a balancing act. Managing e-waste involves constantly trawling the global markets, looking for where to send end-of-life, refined, recycled product that meets the certification requirements of the Canadian marketplace.
As smartphones and other electronics become increasingly smaller and lighter, there is less intrinsic value in them from an e-waste commodity standpoint. The next wave of recycling will focus on household appliances, looking at steel, copper and aluminum for re-manufacturing – something that eCycle is already doing and preparing to ramp up even further. In fact, the company has just installed an extraction belt for steel in its Mississauga, Ontario shredding line.
“Microwaves, toasters, your vacuum cleaner, your soda machine – all of these things are now starting to come through the stewardship programs that are picking these up,” Collins says. “As a result, I don’t want those parts and plastics with my electronics recycling. So I’ve got to segregate and separate to make sure that I’ve got the proper commodities going into the proper buckets so I can maximize the value associated with that particular product.”
eCycle is definitely an influencer in the circular economy, helping to shift the mindset of not only individuals with ongoing awareness programs but also manufacturers that may not have considered the aftermarket potential.
“We’re having more discussions with manufacturers who have specialized medical equipment or other support equipment that they’ve utilized and now it’s come to end-of-life. In the past, it’s gone to landfill or has been sold off into a third-party market. Now, they’re actually trying to figure out how to do the right thing for the environment.”