The average consumer keeping pace with the latest technology has meant tonnes of e-waste being generated each year as gadgets become obsolete. In that, it is intuitive to expect mobile phones—specifically, smartphones—would form a bulk of those out-of-use gadgets. Turns out there is a veritable gold mine in such waste, if a study by University of Surrey is anything to go by. As per a report by The Independent, a UK-based news-daily, the study has found that over $168 million worth of gold is going to waste in a pile of nearly 85 million unused phones in the UK alone. The sheer scale of metals, including copper, silver, etc, used in those phones means the squandering of mineral wealth extracted at great financial and environmental costs.
Replacing in new phones the amount of gold going to waste in old phones would release nearly 84,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, the study finds. Lack of effective recycling of options, and in the case of the UK, contracts from phone-makers that promise frequent model upgrades, have led to a situation where out-of-use phones are piling up. Such waste is not only depleting our mineral reserves needlessly but could ultimately be against the consumers’ interests—with the supply diminishing, metal prices will shoot up and cause gadget prices to rise as well. The study advocates a “cloud-based service” that allows phone memories to be stored safely on the internet, thereby reducing the need for complex processors that use the precious metals. While that could be one way of looking at the problem, another way is to bring obsolete phones back into circulation by the way of used-phone markets in developing economies, where phones obsolete in the developed world could reach poor users and expand mobile and internet connectivity.