The Environmental Protection Administration (EPA) is considering regulating the disposal of cellphones, as only about 5.2 percent are recycled annually.
About 381,000 cellphones were recycled last year, Department of Waste Management Director-General Chiu Chun-hsiung (邱俊雄) said on Tuesday.
If the average lifespan of a cellphone is about two years, based on the 7.33 million phones sold nationwide in 2017, Chiu estimated that only 5.2 percent of discarded phones were recycled last year.
Photo: Chiang Ying-ying, AP
However, the cellphone recycling rate is very low worldwide, with China recording a rate below 2 percent in 2018 and Germany only recycling about 4 percent, he added.
Consumer behavior and the high turnover in cellphones are among the reasons for the low recycling rate, he said.
Given new cellphones are launched so quickly, old versions are still perfectly usable, he said.
A previous EPA survey found that 57.7 percent of people keep their old cellphones to use as backups, while others sell them to secondhand retailers, he said.
People keep old cellphones because they can be stored easily, compared with computers, and do not become eyesores, said Tu Wen-ling (杜文苓), dean of National Chengchi University’s International College of Innovation.
There is a lack of knowledge about how to dispose of old cellphones, so even if someone wants to recycle, they often do not know where to go, while personal information security is also a key concern, she said.
However, old cellphones are a valuable resource, EPA Recycling Fund Management Board executive secretary Yen Hsu-ming (顏旭明) said.
They contain gold, copper, silver, aluminum and tin, so if tens of thousands are recycled, they could form an “urban mine,” Yen said.
Japanese Ministry of the Environment research found that 1,000 cellphones can produce 46g of gold and 275g of silver, although it would take 22,000 phones to get 1kg of gold, Yen said.
Given the precious metals they contain, cellphones are categorized as valuable waste and very few people throw them away, so most enter the secondhand market, Taiwan Watch Institute secretary-general Herlin Hsieh (謝和霖) said.
Board chairwoman Lee Chih-yi (李志怡) said it does not help that cellphones are not included in the EPA’s regulated recyclable waste category, although that could change.
The agency only includes desktop and laptop computers, tablets, monitors, printers and keyboards in that category, so the disposal of cellphones is left to local sanitation authorities to manage in accordance with Article 5, Paragraph 6 of the Waste Disposal Act (廢棄物清理法), Lee said.
The EPA is evaluating including them in the regulated recyclable waste list, and if it does, manufacturers and importers would be charged for their disposal, she said.
Hsieh said he supports such a move, as it would create a standard pathway for disposal and hopefully get more people to recycle their phones.
Greenpeace Taiwan said that cellphone circuit boards contain the flame retardant bromine and heavy metals, while the outer casings are often made of polyvinyl chloride (PVC), so if the phones are incinerated, toxic chemicals, including hydrogen chloride gas from PVC, which is carcinogenic, would be emitted.
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