Would you throw gold, silver, or other precious metals into the trash? Probably not intentionally. However, if you have thrown away an old mobile phone, not realizing that it contains a host of recyclable metals, you are not alone; the average American disposes of a mobile phone every two years, with only one out of 10 dismantled and recycled.
While the value of the metals in each phone is low, the massive number of phones that end up in landfills or incinerators — about 135 million in the US alone in 2010, according to the US Environmental Protection Agency — amounts to hundreds of millions of dollars of wasted resources annually. Given that mining landfills for mobile phones is expensive and inefficient, consumers need a stronger incentive to recycle their old devices. A compulsory deposit on mobile phones could provide it.
Although collection agencies offer cash in exchange for old mobile phones, few people know that they exist. For those who do, the promise of a few dollars is inadequate to motivate them to expend the time and effort needed to find and go to a collection point. The payment will probably not even cover the cost of the gas needed to get there.
By contrast, recouping a deposit of, say, US$25 could prove to be a much more powerful incentive. Given that the deposit must be paid at the time of purchase, it would increase awareness of the device’s inherent value.
More importantly, the higher amount would make the effort of returning the phone worthwhile for a much larger proportion of the population, regardless of whether they identify with the goal of preserving resources. People would be less likely to keep old devices tucked away for no reason if their own money was on the line.
Such a scheme would likely be met with some resistance, with mobile phone producers arguing that, by increasing the cost of their products, the deposit system could undermine demand, especially from less wealthy customers purchasing cheap phones. However, their profits are on the line either way: If people continue to dump valuable resources, the price of cellphones — not to mention the prices of other electronic devices — will rise just as surely.
That is because the problem of electronic waste extends beyond the squandering of the metals themselves. Mining and manufacturing metals is a costly, energy-intensive and often ecologically destructive process. For example, smelting copper ore is more than twice as energy-intensive as recycling copper.
Furthermore, mobile phone batteries contain toxic substances, including heavy metals like cobalt, lead and zinc. If the device is incinerated or left to degrade in a landfill, these substances can leak into soil and groundwater, seriously harming human health and the environment. Just as a deposit system has enabled Germany to substantially reduce the uncontrolled disposal of toxic car batteries, such a scheme could help keep cellphone batteries out of the waste stream.
Deposit systems have proved effective in promoting the recycling of a wide variety of products. In many countries, consumers pay a small deposit on glass bottles and aluminum cans. The introduction of a deposit scheme for plastic bottles in Germany boosted the recycling rate of plastic products significantly.
A cellphone deposit system could be the first step toward a wider scheme aimed at all consumer electronics, more than half of which are not properly recycled. Given that larger devices like computers and televisions contain even more precious metals, an effective system for encouraging proper end-of-life treatment is essential.
Of course, several practical questions would have to be resolved before introducing a cellphone deposit scheme. For example, what should be done about phones for which no deposit has been paid, whether because they were already in circulation when the scheme was launched or because they were purchased abroad?
One solution would be to record the serial numbers of all cellphones for which a deposit has been paid. The benefits of higher recycling rates would surely offset the associated administrative costs.
A mobile phone deposit system would promote recycling, reduce mining, conserve resources and limit toxic waste. So why are policymakers not speed-dialing each other to ensure that such a system is implemented?
Matthias Weitzel and Christine Merk are researchers at the Kiel Institute for the World Economy.
Copyright: Project Syndicate