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Open air burning of e-waste at a land-fill in Agbogbloshie, Ghana. Photo: Miranda Kårelind

“Change your mobile phone as often as you want”. Phone operators are advertising to their consumers to trade in their phones for the latest models as often as they like. The report Fast tracking consumption presents three problems linked to this wear-and-throw model.

In modern life consumers replace their cell-phones with new and updated models, long before the old ones are worn-out. The major Swedish phone operators all offer their customer the opportunity to trade-in an older phone for a new one during the subscription period. The trade-in phones are collected by the operators who, in cooperation with trusted companies, ensures that they are restored and resold, mainly on secondary markets.

In the report, Fast tracking consumption Swedwatch has examined the four largest mobile operators’ campaigns and routines for the collection and recycling of mobile phones. The ability for customers to leave used phones is positive, however the report highlights three challenges surrounding their business models.

The first shortcoming is in the communication of recycling services offered by the operators. Instead of highlighting the importance this has for the environment, advertising campaigns instead focus on the “trade-in – buy new – latest model” consumption angle.

Secondly, these mobile operators do not have reliable systems to ensure that the old phones that are resold on secondary markets are eventually recycled in a proper, non-harmful way. Electronic waste is now the fastest growing waste stream. Upwards of 90% of global waste generated is estimated to end up in illegal streams. In previous reports Swedwatch highlighted that a large amount of electronic waste ends up in landfills in China and Ghana, where it is burned to extract the precious metals. The work is often done with zero protection and in the process releases harmful substances that are hazardous to both people and the environment.

The third challenge is that operators’ existing business models, which contribute to a high turnover of mobile phones, are not in line with EU targets on waste reduction. The production of a single mobile phone results in 86kg of waste. As an alternative, mobile phone operators could offer their customers used mobiles and repair older models. By doing this, these companies can contribute to a change in consumption habits and, in the longer term, to a more circular economy.

Made in collaboration with: Fair Action