Missing in Action: Millions of Australian Mobiles

Adeline Teoh Writer

Australia is a nation of early adopters, and the penetration rate for mobile phones is high. But what happens to old handsets when Australians typically replace their devices every 18 to 24 months?

How many mobile phones do you think a nation of 24 million people have lying forgotten in their desk drawers? Maybe 10 or 15 million?

Wrong. Try 25.5 million.

This figure, according to MobileMuster, an Australian recycling programme for the mobile phone industry, means there are more unused phones than people.

To top that off, phone upgrades tend to happen every 18 to 24 months, according to Gizmodo. It suggests a pretty high rate at which phones are replaced and made redundant.

Ten years ago, it might have been because our phones stopped working or deteriorated in performance. Today, the overwhelming driver instead is because we’re keen to buy the latest technology.

Woman laying with feet up texting cell phone
Australian consumers tend to get a new phone every 18-24 months.

A Nation of Handset Hoarders

Australian Mobile Telecommunications Association’s (AMTA) manager for recycling Spyro Kalos oversees MobileMuster. The programme was first set up in 1998 to recycle mobile phones and prevent them from ending up in landfill.

While Kalos is not surprised by handset hoarding, he has noted a jump in the number of phones stashed away, which he attributes to consumers being more aware of data security and therefore reluctant to part with their device.

“We’re doing a lot more on our devices than ever before. It’s not just voice and text; we’re on social media, we’re doing our banking,” said Kalos. “There’s more visibility in the media around data security and how we can protect ourselves – that’s where the increase of phones in storage comes from.”

Commercial reuse programmes such as Mazuma and Bounce Mobile encourage consumers to wipe data on devices before handing in for recycling, and Kalos also believes it’s important to give consumers the steps to manage their own data.

“We spend a lot of time trying to educate consumers on how to manage their data, not just for security, but transferring the information they want to keep before they sell or recycle it.”

Recycling Results in Junk for Good

The good news is very few handsets go to landfill. In fact, less than two per cent make it there, according to AMTA.

But the biggest frustration remains that the ones that aren’t recycled are being stashed away, unused. Reusing working handsets by selling or giving them to others not only reduces the device’s environmental footprint. It also helps someone in need.

Baby with hearing aid
Old phones could help people in need such as ones with deafblindness.

MobileMuster periodically partners with charities for its campaigns. In September, it partnered Able Australia and urged Australians to donate unwanted phones to the deaf and blind community. Helping people with deaf and blindness stay in touch with the hearing and seeing world, these phones can be used with a Braille reader, which connects to the smartphone via Bluetooth, so that users can send and receive emails as well as surf the internet.

For other campaigns, MobileMuster donates AU$2 (US$1.50) for every kilogramme of mobile phones and accessories collected by the charity, as they did for the Salvation Army’s Christmas Appeal in 2015, which netted almost 14 tonnes.

“We see a 15 to 25 per cent lift in our collection when we do these charity campaigns,” Kalos said. “There are always people who will recycle because they know it’s good for the environment, but there are others that need an extra push to do it or a different cause that motivates them.”

Cut Waste, Save the Environment

Many materials in a mobile phone, such as rare earth elements, are finite, so if you’re not going to reuse the phone, recycling is a better option than stashing them away in drawers.

MobileMuster sends phones to e-waste specialist TES-AMM, which uses an effective hydro-chemical process to recover various materials.

“We see a recovery rate of 98 per cent, which means 98 per cent of the mobile phone can be broken down to its raw materials and put back into the supply chain,” said Kalos. “Will we ever get to a zero-waste model? Probably not, there is always going to be residue.”

Man throwing a phone in the trash
98 per cent of mobile phones or their parts can be reused.

While there’s currently no research that measures whether consumers consider a device’s longevity in their buying criteria, Kalos says there has been a concerted effort by manufacturers to focus more on recycling.

Earlier this year, Apple launched Liam, a robot that disassembles an iPhone in 11 seconds into recyclable parts, indicating there’s a market in that space.

When it comes to decreasing mobile phone waste, the old adage of ‘reduce, reuse, recycle’ applies. Not only will the environment thank you, it will make mobile device manufacturing a little more sustainable too.

MobileMuster has more than 3,500 mobile drop-off points around Australia. Alternatively, you can recycle your phone by sending it in via Australia Post, postage free.

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