The Mobile Mines


Not long ago, mobile phones were a rare commodity and a luxury. These were used mainly by business people, government officials and the elite in society. Today, the mobile phones are everywhere – used by everybody including in distant rural areas and urban poor because of the affordability, connectivity and applications it can offer.  This has led to a huge number of unused and discarded phones as people upgrade and replace their phones frequently.

In the middle of 2005, the subscribers to mobile phone carriers dramatically increased. The number of total users jumped close to 4 billion worldwide resulting in an estimated 650 million retired or discarded mobile phones. The problem is what do we do with these discarded mobile phones?


(Picture above taken from

A mobile phone has significant impacts across its life cycle – right from extraction (especially metals), making, packaging and distribution, use and disposal. Figure 1 describes life cycle of a typical mobile phone. You would notice that recycling and reuse should ideally form a dominant component of this life cycle. Most discarded mobile phones will otherwise choke our landfills.


Figure 1: Life Cycle of a Typical Mobile Phone

(Taken from

What do the mobile phones typically contain? Mostly, mobile phones comprise of a handset (includes: Printed Circuit Board (PCB), Liquid Crystal Display (LCD), Keypad, Antennae, Microphone, Casing), a battery and a charger. The PCB is made mostly of copper is soldered to the board with protective coatings and adhesives. The board is made of epoxy resin or fiberglass and generally coated with gold plating. Other precious metals and hazardous substances in the PCB are arsenic (in chips made from gallium arsenide), antimony, beryllium, Brominated Flame Retardants (BFRs), cadmium, lead (used in the solder that joins the parts), nickel, palladium, silver, tantalum and zinc. The lead and BFRs have the highest environmental impact due to their levels of toxicity and persistence in the environment.

The LCD as the name suggests contains liquid crystals and these substances can contain toxic substances such as mercury. Rechargeable batteries generate less waste than single-use batteries however; rechargeable batteries can contain toxic components such as cadmium, nickel, zinc and copper. The charger used to recharge the battery often weighs more than the handset and battery combined. It is generally not interchangeable among different makes and models of phones, contributing significantly to the waste generated.  The chargers consist of mainly copper wires encased in plastic, but materials such as gold, cadmium and BFRs may also be present.

Discarded mobile phones are like mobile mines of precious metals.   

Nearly 300 grams of gold can be recovered from approximately 1 tonne of recycled mobile phones. These 300 grams of gold when re-used can save mining 110 tons of gold ore. Batteries contain a range of metals which can be reused as a secondary raw material. There are well established methods for recycling most batteries containing lead, nickel-cadmium and mercury, but for some, such as newer nickel-hydride and lithium systems, recycling is still in the early stages, but this will soon happen.

So it is important that we find a way to recycle or get back the used mobile sets. Many large mobile set makers have come together today under leadership of the Basel Secretariat to form Mobile Phone Partnership Initiative (MPPI). We however need such partnerships to “descend down” to local levels.

According to a global consumer survey released by Nokia, only 3% of people recycle their mobile phones.  The survey was based on interviews with 6,500 people in 13 countries. Globally, half of those surveyed didn’t know that metals could be reused. Between 65 – 80 per cent of a Nokia device can be recycled. Nokia has 5000 collection points for unwanted mobile devices in 85 countries around the world, the largest voluntary scheme in the mobile industry.

In Bangladesh, Nokia tried to promote its mobile recycling campaign, however the response was not significant because of lack of awareness, unfamiliarity with the concept of recycling; and people were interested in getting paid for returning their used mobile phones. Why give the used mobile phone free? That was the barrier. Most discarded mobile phones were kept in the drawers of a cupboard in the house like coffins.

So some believe that buy-back programs may just work. Sprint in the United States has a long list of approved phones for taking back. Sprint pays a $195 for a 64GB Wi-Fi iPad,  a T-Mobile MyTouch 4G is worth $85.69, a Samsung Restore brings $26, and an LG EnV Touch delivers $12 in account credit. Normal wear and tear is fine, but the product must turn on and be free of corrosion, water damage, and display scratches. Visit   for more information.

There could be other incentive models for mobile phone recycling. At 40 Beijing post offices, Nokia has placed a Mobile Man to accept used mobile phones. Made in Singapore, Mobile Man is a non-motorized creature standing about 6 feet tall and weighing some 44 pounds.The Mobile Man gives a free movie ticket to those who turn in old phones. All they have to do is put their handset in a designated envelope and they’ll also get a receipt that lets them stay updated on the status of their phone as it gets dismantled and recycled.Mobile_Man  


Nokia has taken other steps to encourage mobile phone recycling by installing Integrated Nokia Kiosk (INK) – a first-of-its-kind kiosk that combines recycling and customer care services. As part of a six-month pilot program, the booths have been rolled out in four locations across central Klang Valley in Malyasia. Mobile users can drop off their old phones at the kiosks to be recycled, as well as leave their devices for servicing.Mobile_Kiosk

We often use the term Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR), but in order to successfully mine the metals in our discarded mobiles phone, we must cultivate Extended Customer Responsibility (ECR). Everyone needs to consciously and actively recycle used mobile phones.

The next time you upgrade to a new mobile phone, consider sending the old one for recycling instead of just tossing it in the dustbin. Let’s help conserve earth’s precious metal resources and do our bit to save the planet. Don’t forget that mobile phones are like mobile mines!


(This article is a modified version of the piece published in Green Prospects Asia in Malyasia)


For Students: Interesting projects could be conducting surveys on the used or discarded mobiles. Segment the survey across urban and rural areas, income groups, gender, age etc. Learn about take back schemes on used mobiles in your neighborhoods; meet mobile phone makers and suppliers on recycling – especially of metals, and open up a campaign. Attempt a life cycle analyses of mobile phones and the chargers. Study the technology options and economics of metal recycling.


  1. EPR in sync with ECR is very good proposition. And Samsung being lead producer of cell phones in India should take a lead with proper financial reward mechanism to make ECR attractive and EPR happen.
    India should also take lead in this e-waste handling and make a business proposition. EMC can prepare an All-India Paper in consultation with Industry & Statutory Agencies and then operationalize thro’ approved recyclers.

  2. Our experience in the State Pollution Control Boards has hardly been encouraging. Most of the producers have shied
    away from offering any wothwhile buy back scheme. Most of the e-waste is still going to illegal recyclers which do it unmindful of any environmental consequences. Producers need to behave responsibly.

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