Vodafone Wants to Salvage a Phone for Every New One Sold. Is It Worth it?

Vodafone Wants to Salvage a Phone for Every New One Sold. Is It Worth it?
Photo: Poravute Siriphiroon, Shutterstock

We’re still far away from getting electronics from sustainable sources, but there are a few companies trying to make a go at saving some lost e-material from the landfill.

Closing the Loop, a European e-waste recycling company, announced a new partnership with Germany-based Vodafone, one of Europe’s largest telecommunications companies, on Tuesday. Namely, CTL claimed that for every new phone that Vodafone sells in Germany, it will collect an old busted device in an emerging market country and salvage the device’s reusable parts. The company said starting June 1, “a huge number of at least 1 million of devices will be compensated — and thus will also be collected — each year.”

Wired first reported on the new initiative, where CTL Director Joost de Kluijver told reporters the goal is to make e-recycling “commercially attractive.” Vodafone, when it’s not helping host a strangely uncomfortable “AR performance” with the 75-year-old Elton John, is also set to announce an initiative to incentivise people to trade in old phones, according to Wired’s report.

The Netherlands-based CTL has previously tried smaller initiatives with companies like Samsung and T-Mobile. The Dutch company advertises it buys old phones from people in emerging markets — namely countries like Ghana, Nigeria, and Cameroon — to then recycle the valuable resources found in these products. Inside electronic devices are precious materials like gold, silver, copper, and cobalt. Expanding markets like electric vehicles are in desperate need of elements like cobalt in their batteries.

So what makes this different from Toms’ lauded-then-derided “buy a shoe, give a shoe” scheme of the early 2000s? CTL said in its release that part of its mission is focused on getting people engaged with the concept of reducing e-waste and creating a “circular economy” for products to go back into circulation. It’s also much more focused in scale compared to Toms’ overburdened multinational shoe delivery apparatus, and the Dutch company claims it works directly with public and private organisations to circulate these busted electronics.

How effective is e-recycling anyway?

The World Economic Forum wrote in 2021 that phones make up 10% of global e-waste. Last year, the Waste Electronic and Electrical Equipment (WEEE) forum announced that the total e-waste generated around the world was estimated to reach 57.4 million tons, which was up from 53.6 million in 2019 as smartphones proliferate. In the U.S., where over 151 million phones are “recycled,” 416,000 phones are sent to the trash every day. The world’s total e-waste is on course to hit 74 million tons by 2030. In that release, Ruediger Kuehr, the head of the United Nations Institute for Training and Research in Bonn, Germany, said “A tonne of discarded mobile phones is richer in gold than a tonne of gold ore.”

Though of course, there are massive issues to recycling efforts. The U.S. regularly ships its e-waste collected for “recycling” to other nations where the methods used to extract precious materials have been detrimental to both humans and the environment. Up until 2018, China was accepting massive amounts of e-waste, but as it closed its ports, a new onus to do more of their own e-recycling fell on Western nations. CTL does say if it ships its recycling to Europe, and other organisations looking to combat the e-waste issue have advocated that electronic trash shouldn’t be dumped exclusively in developing economies.

As pointed out by Wired, the self-repair advocates at Ifixit say that there are few precious materials that can be extracted from electronics, and there are no phones available made completely from recycled materials. Still, some smaller phone brands have tried getting there.

Then again, there are very few major products that are remade using recycling techniques. Every effort counts, but it will take a massive effort on the part of the tech industry itself to move toward a more sustainable future for phones.