Old Mobile Is Destroying
By Geoffrey Lean
18October , 2004
handsets - a billion are in use around the world - are packed with dangerous
chemicals and metals that can endanger people and the environment once
they have been thrown away. Developing countries complain that they
are being dumped on them, contaminating whole communities.
Next week, 160 governments
- meeting in Geneva under the auspices of the Basel Convention, the
United Nations treaty regulating trade in toxic waste - will address
the growing crisis.
But phone users
do have something to cheer about: a new gadget to combat the curse of
the noisy mobile conversation. The Cooltalk VoiceBox, a device similar
to those used by security agents, is said to filter out blaring music
or rattling trains using microchip technology, so that the person on
the other end hears only the speaker's voice.
Users trade up to
a new handset on average every 18 months. As a result, some 105 million
handsets are discarded in Europe each year, enough - if placed end to
end - to stretch from London to a point 150 miles beyond Perth in Australia.
Even more - 130 million - are thrown out annually in the United States.
Tests by both the
US and the Californian environmental protection agencies have established
that they should be classified as toxic waste. The cadmium in a single
battery from an old phone could seriously contaminate 600,000 litres
of water, enough to fill a third of an Olympic-sized swimming pool.
Cadmium is being phased out of new batteries, but many other poisonous
materials remain. Lead - which affects the immune, endocrine and central
nervous systems, and causes serious damage to children's brains - is
used to solder components to the printed wiring boards. Brominated flame
retardants, used in wiring boards and plastic cases, have been associated
with cancer, liver damage and problems with the neurological, immune
and endocrine systems. Beryllium, which can cause serious lung damage,
is used in contacts and springs and highly toxic dioxins can be emitted
if the phones are incinerated in waste plants.
Experts add that
many phones at the end of their lives are exported to developing countries
such as India, Pakistan and China where they are broken up for recycling
in rudimentary conditions, threatening workers' health and their communities.
Colombia, Nigeria, Brazil, Botswana, Uganda, Namibia and Kenya all voiced
alarm at the impact of discarded phones on their countries at a previous
Basel Convention meeting.
The convention is
now working closely with the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP)
and mobile phone manufacturers to tackle the crisis. It is working on
designing new phones with safer components, collecting discarded phones,
and recycling and disposing of them safely.
In Britain, over
the past two years, a partnership between the Government, network operators
and major retailers, called Fonebak, has collected and recycled more
than 3.5 million phones - about one-10th of those discarded.
They are recycled
in Bucharest, Romania. Nickel is recovered from batteries for use in
saucepans, irons and new batteries. Small amounts of platinum, gold,
silver and copper are recovered for jewellery and pipes. And the plastic
is sent to Sweden where it is burnt to provide central heating for a
Klaus Toepfer, UNEP's
executive director, says that the growing partnership with the industry
should "serve as a model and an inspiration" for other businesses.
Critics hope that
next week's meeting will impose legal controls on the trade in old phones.
The Basel Action Network, a coalition of environmental groups, wants
exports of all hazardous waste from rich countries to poor ones to be
2004 Independent Digital (UK) Ltd