As people upgrade to iPhones and other shiny new electronic gadgets, the need for consumers and manufacturers to recycle the old ones is becoming urgent
Snazzy new mobile phones like the iPhone and other must-have electronic gadgets, such as the latest laptops and iPod models, will fill many stockings this Christmas. But disposing of the older devices will not be at the forefront of most people's minds.
Around 11,000 tons of unused phones already sit dormant in drawers across the UK, and that figure is likely to rise this Christmas as people upgrade to better devices. Factoring in old laptops, games consoles and portable music players, the environmental implications of celebrating Christmas with a new digital toy start to look ominous, as most of the older electronic products will end up in landfill sites, leaking dangerous chemicals into the earth.
While reusing the devices either by passing them on to friends or selling it is the best solution, recycling the gadget is the next best thing. Companies such as the Body Shop and mobile phone operators such as Orange have been offering to recycle handsets for years, but UK consumers are still much more likely to bin their old phone as soon as they have transferred their numbers.
Johan Thomsen, a manager at Green Mobile, argued: "The problem today is that people upgrade their mobile phones every year and only a small percentage of these phones are disposed of safely." The situation is " frightening", he said.
Green Mobile, a small operator that passes on a portion of its profits to environmental charities such as the Woodland Trust and Friends of the Earth, does not woo users with a free, leading edge handset, as is commonplace in the UK. Instead, it asks people to hold on to their existing phones for as long as possible and passes on the savings of not having to subsidise a new handset to the user through lower call charges.
Mr Thomsen said that a handset is designed to last five years, yet 100 million people in Europe upgrade to a new phone every year. The company also offers environmentally friendly wind-up phone chargers for customers who want to reduce their phone's environmental impact further.
For those mobile phones, laptops and iPods that have seen better days, recycling is the best way to reduce the environmental impact of the product. EU legislation requires that hardware companies that produce electronic products are also responsible for disposing of the device, and a number of companies, including Fonebak, ReCellular and Eazyfone, have built businesses based on recycling phones on behalf of manufacturers. Meanwhile, device makers are designing phones that are easily recyclable and contain less hazardous chemicals.
ABI Research expects that shipments of recycled phones will exceed 100 million units in 2012, driven by shorter handset replacement cycles, growing demand for low-cost mobile phones in emerging markets, regulation and growing consumer demand. By 2012, ABI expects the market for recycled handsets to be worth $3bn (£1.5bn), but the analyst Shailendra Pandey said the key challenge is to revamp the old mobile phones at the lowest possible cost, to ensure a decent margin on the resale.
However, with 1 billion handsets sold around the world every year, and Nokia alone shipping 1 million mobile phones a day, consumers need to take some responsibility for the safe disposal of their old devices, starting this Christmas.