Understanding the mobile waste management efforts of MNOs in emerging markets

As we celebrate Earth Day 2020 today, we are pleased to kick-off a blog series that focuses on several mobile operators in emerging markets that have taken the initiative to lead comprehensive e-waste management schemes in their respective countries. The series will explore the initiatives’ learnings, impacts and other specific trends, with the hope to encourage an industry-wide mobile waste and e-waste management best practice.

With 50 million tonnes added to its already impressive weight every year, e-waste is the fastest growing waste stream in the world. Rapid innovation and decreasing costs have increased access to electronic products and digital technology across developing countries. Advances in technology creates the need for newer devices and tools to use them, and this has led to an increase in electrical and electronic equipment (EEE).

Mobile phone waste is a significant component of e-waste globally. The key reason being, the substantial number of rare minerals and metals that could be extracted from these devices.

The below table shows the average percentage of different material found in one smartphone. This in itself shows the importance of proper end of life management for mobile waste. A great and inspiring example of end of life management for electronics comes from Japan in preparation for the 2020 Olympics (now postponed to 2021) where recycled mobile phones provided the material for all the gold, silver and bronze medals.

Material Simplified Composition mobile phone
Silver 0.24%
Gold 0.02%
Palladium 0.01%
Lithium 0.35%
Zinc 0.40%
Tin 0.00%
Tantalum 0.02%
Tungsten 0.32%
Neodymium 0.04%
Praseodymium 0.01%
Dysprosium 0.20%

Addressing e-waste as a global issue; where are we?

Sound management of e-waste in a country requires a comprehensive e-waste management policy, which should be well implemented and have strong initiatives by both the public and private sector. However, in many countries we have quite the opposite situation when it comes to e-waste management. The 2017 Global E-waste Monitor reported that in 2016 almost 80 per cent of the global e-waste was not documented. This report further highlights that Europe has the highest e-waste collection rate of 35 per cent, whereas in Asia it’s 15 per cent, and zero per cent in Africa. This highlights quite clearly that we are far from addressing or managing the problem.

Mobile waste management efforts by MNOs in emerging markets

As part of the GSMA CleanTech team’s effort towards facilitating circularity, we have conducted a study to review the e-waste policy environment in 85 countries across Africa, South and South East Asia. So far, we have been encouraged to see 67 e-waste management initiatives led by mobile operators in in 40 of 85 countries. Out of these efforts, 38 of them are around creating awareness. Although the e-waste regulatory environment didn’t demand it, 43 MNOs have set up e-waste or mobile waste collection points in their offices and customer contact centres. The role played by some of these MNOs has sometimes catalysed policy development in some countries.

Different types of MNO activities:

The mobile industry contributes to all e-waste categories. However, it might be more natural to associate the industry impact to two quite different waste types. These could broadly be categorised as:

  • External: customer handheld devices broadly known as mobile waste. Many mobile operators do not produce or sell mobile phones. However, since a handheld device is needed to use the connectivity operators provide, some operators have taken the initiative to set up mobile waste collection or buy-back points in their shops. Just to give an indication on the scale, in USA, it is estimated that there are more than 100 million phones discarded annually.
  • Internal: e-waste generated from tower operations. In mobile towers managed by MNOs, battery bank batteries and other antenna equipment create a significant amount of waste. We have seen several examples of operators having streamlined and well-managed processes to recycle these materials in an environmentally responsible manner.

Why are MNO e-waste initiatives important?

In most of these instances MNOs saw the need to act and set up these efforts, rather than simply responding to a policy change. E-waste is the largest growing waste stream globally and the mobile industry should step up to play its role in supporting the overall management of e-waste. Learnings from the efforts that will be highlighted in this series, could be used by other MNOs and partners to set up or improve a more robust e-waste management initiative.

Are you representing an MNO with an ongoing e-waste or mobile waste management initiative? Are you interested to set-up such effort in your market? Or would you like to know more about industry e-waste management efforts?  Please write to us with your thoughts to get in touch.

This initiative is currently funded by the UK Department for International Development (DFID), and supported by the GSMA and its members.
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