Mobile extraction

MobileMuster Manager Spyro Kalos talks to Waste Management Review about the recycling process for smartphones and their reuse potential.

With recycling across the board gaining significant attention due to China’s National Sword and resulting policy changes, public trust in the process has been challenged.

“Plastic not so fantastic”, a recent 60 Minutes report, further complicated matters by suggesting the public’s recycling efforts were being wasted on dubious resource recovery.

While waste industry associations say the report didn’t paint a full picture of the Australian recycling industry or its processes, public discussion around China’s National Sword policy continues.

MobileMuster, the federally accredited product stewardship program of the mobile phone industry, is focused on educating the public about the mobile phone recycling process to further confidence in the e-waste resource recovery market and increase mobile phone recycling.

It’s a significant goal given 89 per cent of Australians own a smartphone, according to a 2018 Deloitte Mobile Survey, and many hoard their devices.

Since the product stewardship program began in 1998, MobileMuster has collected and recycled over 1400 tonnes of mobile phone components including handsets and their batteries, chargers and accessories.

To date the program has recycled over 13 million handsets.

MobileMuster works to provide free mobile phone recycling in Australia and is voluntarily funded by all major handset manufacturers and network carriers such as Apple, Google, Telstra and Samsung.

MobileMuster’s 2018 Annual Report estimates that e-waste is growing three times faster than any other waste stream in Australia. It is no surprise then that MobileMuster Manager Spyro Kalos estimates 25 million unused mobile phones are currently sitting dormant in Australian homes.

“While we know less than two per cent of mobile phones are being thrown into the general waste stream, we need to work to reduce the number of mobiles lying dormant in storage,” Spyro says.

“There is certainly value in recovering the materials inside those phones to reduce wasted resources.”

According to Spyro, what many people don’t know, or rather don’t think about, is their smart phone contains untapped precious metals and raw material, most of which has been mined.

Additionally, smartphones contain many of the materials the waste industry and public at large are accustomed to thinking about, plastic, glass and aluminum, making them full of untapped reuse and recycling potential.

“I am a strong believer in transparency. When someone recycles their mobile phone with MobileMuster, I want them to know exactly what happens and how the various components are being processed,” Spyro says.

“We need to increase the trust of consumers because without their participation, the circular economy breaks down. The industry has an obligation to all its stakeholders to ensure best practice is used when collecting and processing products.”

MobileMuster’s recycling partner is TES, a global electronic waste recycler and lifecycle management service. The two groups have been working together for six years.

According to Spyro, they work to maximise recovery rates and ensure all mobile components are correctly processed.

“Through our recycling process, over 95 per cent of a mobile phone’s material re-enters the supply chain and is used for the fabrication of new products,” Spyro says.

“We transform the device’s waste components into valuable materials for reuse, which means fewer raw materials need to be extracted.”

Spyro says that when someone leaves their old device at one of MobileMuster’s 3500 public drop off points, it is collected and transported to a TES recycling facility in Melbourne, Sydney or Brisbane.

“The device is then disassembled into individual components including batteries, printed circuit boards, casing, screens, accessories and packaging,” Spyro says.

“None of the phones are resold, and any data left on the device is destroyed during the disassembling process.”

Spyro says components are then further processed though shredding and sorting techniques to maximise resource recovery.

“In 2017, TES started using Envirostream to process smartphone batteries, which is a difficult waste stream. At TES facilities in Melbourne, the batteries are granulated and sorted in materials for recycling,” Spyro says.

“The process recovers copper, aluminium, cobalt, nickel, lithium and plastics. The onshore solution also reduces the need to transport the batteries internationally for processing.”

In the age of smartphones and touch screens, glass is another core material in the recycling process.    

“Glass from smartphones is crushed and melted before being reused for new products or as a replacement material in construction elements like roadbase.

“Aluminium is another significant component of mobile phones, and one of the most easily recycled materials. The recycling process uses considerably less energy than producing new aluminium.”

Aluminium is melted in a furnace, with the resulting liquid aluminium placed in moulds to create new products like drink cans, bikes and car bodies.

MobileMuster recycled one million handsets last year, and according to Spyro, the organisation needs to keep that momentum going if they hope to continue effectively tackling e-waste.

“The public need to be sure that when they leave their phone with MobileMuster, almost the entire device is being reused.”

Related stories:

Brisbane battery recycling boost from Lithium Australia

Lithium Australia has announced it will begin manufacturing and recycling advanced battery materials at its research and development lab, VSPC, in Brisbane.

The company aims to close the loop in the energy-metals cycle and is seeking to establish a vertically integrated lithium processing business.

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It aims to improve the lithium-ion battery supply chain with the company’s SiLeach lithium extraction process, superior cathode production, and enhanced recycling techniques for battery materials.

VSPC’s pilot production facilities have been fully re-commissioned, allowing the company to assemble and test lithium-ion coin and pouch cells.

Lithium Australia managing director Adrian Griffin said the company intended to turn VSPC into a global facility for manufacturing advanced cathode materials as well as for battery recycling.

“VSPC gives Lithium Australia the opportunity to manufacture the world’s most advanced cathode materials – at the high-margin end of the battery metals market. Importantly, VSPC will also allow us to capitalise on waste batteries as a feed source,” he said.

“We anticipate immense pressure on the supply of energy metals such as lithium and cobalt in the near future. Battery recycling not only supports sustainability but may also, ultimately, prove the cheapest source of those energy metals materials in years to come.

“The ability to produce cathode powders from these materials, while also controlling particle size, is clearly advantageous. It is an integral part of our sustainable and ethical supply policy,” Mr Griffin said.

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