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The University of Southampton

Research project: Closed-loop resource use in valuable electronic products: innovative recovery and recycling of mobile phones - Dormant - Dormant

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Maximising efficiency in high resource-value products.

Resource efficiency and security are significant global topics. It is important to ensure maximum use of resources within a circular economy. Resources such as Rare Earth Metals are facing supply risks exacerbated by competing demand from important emerging technologies (including low-carbon technology such as wind turbines and electric cars). Hence, recovering raw materials from waste products is essential to achieving a closed-loop economy.

Globally, about 1.2 billion mobile phones are produced annually, demanding vast use of resources including gold, copper, silver, Platinum Group Metals and Rare Earth Metals. Mobile phones can contain up to 40 elements some of which are hazardous, of high value or in critical supply risk. They have short life-cycles and low collection rates at their end-of-life. In terms of volume and resource use, mobile phones represent the most valuable electronic product currently found in large numbers in waste streams. This is a waste stream with high potential for resource recovery.

This project investigated mobile phone use and disposal among young people with an aim to:

  1. Assess disposal routes for end-of-life mobile phones
  2. Quantify the amount of end-of-life mobile phones and their related embedded key resources
  3. Develop and trial alternative strategies to increase collection of end-of-life mobile phones from consumers

Key findings:

  • 6/10 end-of-life/unused mobile phones are hoarded/stockpiled by their owners. This prevents essential resources from finding their way back to the resource stream
  • In 2010, Higher Education students in the UK, Germany, USA, Australia and China, stockpiled 63 million phones, containing 2000 tonnes of 13 key metals worth $195 million
  • Convenience, ease of use, promotion and monetary incentives are key factors for successful returns of end-of-life mobile phones
  • Universities represent untapped collection hubs for mobile phones

Related research groups

Key Publications

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