Metal from old mobile phones covers material requirements for 10 years

Gold, palladium or platinum not only slumber deep in the ground. Almost every household in Germany has such rare raw materials hoarded in their own homes, including old electrical appliances such as defective televisions, rickety laptops and cell phones in drawers.

That Institute of the German economy (IW) made the potential clear on Monday in Cologne: the metal from the discarded mobile phones in Germany is sufficient to cover the material requirements for smartphones for the next ten years. The IW study estimates the total metal value of unused mobile phones in Germany at around 240 million euros. At the same time, the material value of the smartphones sold in Germany in 2021 corresponds to 23.5 million euros.

According to a Bitkom study published at the beginning of December, people in Germany keep around 300 million old mobile phones, laptops or tablets at home, including around 210 million mobile phones in drawers. 87 percent of citizens have at least one discarded one smartphone. According to their own statements, every second respondent even owns more than three old cell phones.

60 individual components processed

In a smartphone are noisy Bitkom around 60 individual components are processed, including aluminium, cobalt, lithium, magnesium, titanium and phosphorus – but also precious metals such as copper, nickel and gold. “The production of a smartphone requires a lot of raw materials, energy and resources,” emphasized Bitkom CEO Bernhard Rohleder. Raw materials that are not easy to get on the world market in times of supply difficulties and conflicts.

The domestic drawer as a huge source of raw materials. However, the reality is different as not all drawer phones are recycled and are also fully recyclable. Nevertheless, the authors of the study recommend expanding the circular economy and “urban mining” – i.e. the recovery of raw materials in one’s own household. The extraction and use of raw materials from old devices not only protects the environment in the long term. It also makes the German economy and consumers more independent of export countries like China, they say.

At the same time, from the point of view of the study authors, many recycling processes are not yet efficient enough; recycling is not worthwhile from an economic point of view. The pure metal value of an old mobile phone is 1.15 euros, the small parts of the devices make recycling difficult. “It would be better to avoid waste during product development or to professionally reprocess the devices and their components for reuse,” says study author and circular economy expert Adriana Neligan.

A first important step would be for consumers to bring back their unused old devices. But politicians must also provide support here, set the pace and provide better incentives for collection. Many dealers now offer so-called refurbished products. This refers to smartphones or laptops that are first refurbished and then resold at a lower price.

Old smartphones for a good cause

Defective devices, on the other hand, can be donated to non-profit organizations or aid organizations, for example. The international catholic mission organization missio Aachen, together with its cooperation partners, has received more than 400,000 old mobile phones for a good cause over the past six years.

The aid organization points out that the beautiful world of mobile phones has a “dark, bloody side”. “Rebel groups in eastern Congo are seizing coltan mines and illegally selling the rare ore needed to make cell phones. The civilian population is being brutally expelled.”

In its “clean hands campaign”, Missio calls on mobile phone manufacturers to check the supply chains and to demand proof from their suppliers that they do not use coltan from the Democratic Republic of the Congo for the production of mobile phones, the trade in which militias profit from. They should participate in “round tables” where affected traders, artisanal miners, certifiers and government agencies work together to develop guidelines on how transparency initiatives should be designed.

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