Mobile phones, particularly smartphones, have undergone a period of rapid growth to become virtually indispensable to today's lifestyle. Yet their production, use and disposal can entail a significant environmental burden.
This study, commissioned by the European Economic and Social Committee and carried out by the Centre for European Policy Studies, looks at the opportunities and challenges arising from implementing circular economy approaches in the mobile phone value chain. A review of the value chain and different circular approaches is complemented by a scenario analysis that aims to quantify the potential impacts of circular approaches such as recycling, refurbishment and lifetime extension.
The study finds that there is a large untapped potential for recovering materials from both the annual flow of new mobile phones sold in Europe once they reach the end of their life and the accumulated stock of unused, so-called "hibernating" devices in EU households. Achieving high recycling rates for these devices can offer opportunities to reduce EU dependence on imported materials and make secondary raw materials available on the EU market, as shown in the picture below.
Drawing on the empirical findings and the analysis conducted, this study recommends policy action in the following areas:
- Collection rates of old unused mobile phone devices are low, which means there is largely unexploited potential in the EU for recovering valuable materials from these devices.
- Although consumers generally show willingness to engage in circular economy practices for mobile phones, in reality only a few do so.
- Various challenges for reuse and refurbishment businesses stem from EU legislation, including regulatory complexity and "preparation for use" in the WEE directive.
As such, policy-makers should close the collection gap for mobile phone devices, which could in turn create jobs in the refurbishment sector. Extending the lifetime of mobile phones can also provide CO2 mitigation benefits, particularly from displacing the production of new devices.