Tuesday, 25 February 2014

Phone Battery Recycling Targets Need To Improve

Recycling electronic devices, including the lithium-ion batteries of mobiles and smartphones, is essential for sustainability, as they contain a surprising amount of precious metals and other materials. Unfortunately, only a small percentage of rechargeable batteries are being recycled in Europe: according to EU figures for 2010, released by Friends of the Earth, just 1,289 tonnes of batteries were collected for recycling, amounting to only 4-5% of the number of batteries sold in the same 12-month period. The good news is that very few batteries end up in landfills due to various regulations in place, but the bad news is that they are most often left in a drawer – unused, but also not recycled.

Lithium-ion batteries contain mostly cobalt, which constitutes 10% to 20% of the component, as well as nickel, copper and aluminium. The recycling process involves melting these metals into an alloy. According to the largest lithium-ion battery recycling firm in Europe – Umicore – the process for recovering metals has a 90% smaller ecological footprint than the initial mining process. The head of battery recycling at Umicore, Sybolt Brouwer, calls this urban mining and claims that the precious metal content in mobile phones is around 100 times higher than the content found in the ground. Urban mining, however, remains largely unexplored and valuable resources get lost.

The measures currently in use by the recycling industry are bring-back schemes and drop-bins specifically for batteries. Often batteries are disposed of together with the main body of the telephone and get separated at a later stage in the recycling process. European directives are being reviewed in view of raising battery recycling targets to 65% of mobile phone sales. This year's target is for 30% of all batteries sold to be recycled, and next year's target is 35%.

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