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Smartphones are disassembled into separate parts, including the case, screen, battery and circuit board, for further recycling. Photo: Handout

Recycling old smartphones is not only good for the environment – it is a potentially lucrative business for e-waste companies in China

  • China was once a dumping ground for the world’s discarded electronics, with thousands of workshops disassembling old computers to extract materials to recycle
  • The value of metals discarded as electronic waste in China is forecast to be worth US$23.8 billion by 2030

Like many Chinese millennials, 24-year-old Lin Chenru likes to upgrade his mobile phone every couple of years – just don’t ask him where his old devices are.

“I think they’re still in my room, but I don’t know exactly where,” Lin said. “I don’t throw away my old phones when I get a new one but as time goes by, I don’t pay much attention to it.”

The reason Lin, and most consumers, hang on to retired phones is usually because there is still data stored on the old handset. “I keep them in case there is still something useful [stored] inside,” he said.

Lin is not alone in keeping retired smartphones in a forgotten corner. Research by Greenpeace East Asia, an environment-focused non-government organisation, estimated that China’s smartphone recycling rate is below 2 per cent – meaning only two out of 100 old phones are properly recycled instead of being thrown away or left in the bottom of a drawer to gather dust.

As more Chinese consumers adopt new and better devices every year, the result is a huge build up of so-called electronic garbage in old handsets that could be extracted for professional recycling, including metals such as copper and gold.

China’s recycling revolution

China was once a dumping ground for the world’s discarded electronic products, with the city of Guiyu in Guangdong province known for its thousands of small workshops that broke down old computers and electronics to extract materials for recycling.

But those days are largely over since the Chinese government banned imports of solid “foreign garbage” and enhanced environmental supervision on the disposal of electronics to try and prevent groundwater contamination that can be extremely harmful to human health.

At a factory in the suburbs of Shanghai, operated by Singapore-based e-waste specialist TES, skilled workers in blue uniforms, goggles and masks break down used smartphones in just a few minutes, sorting the phone case, screen, battery and circuit board into bins for further recycling.

TES China marketing director Richard Wang explained the process, which starts by using chemical treatments to dissolve and refine any precious metals, such as gold, that are on the circuit boards. The next step is to crush the circuit boards into powder and separate the copper and plastic.

Physical methods such as static electricity are employed to extract powders that contain metals such as copper, while similar methods are used to extract powders containing non-metal elements.

Wang said the recycling of 100 million phones could, in theory, produce more than 120kg of gold, with the purity above 99.9 per cent after refining.

Smartphones are broken down for recycling. Photo: Handout

The Shanghai facility is one of four that TES operates in China, with the other three being in Guangzhou, Beijing and Suzhou.

The Shanghai plant has now teamed up with Huawei Technologies Co, the Chinese telecoms giant that has seen its smartphone business take a big hit from US trade restrictions.

Liu Hua, a campaign specialist for waste and resources at Greenpeace East Asia, said it is common for smartphone makers like Huawei to team up with professional third-party e-waste companies to recycle smartphones.

In 2019, Apple said it had received nearly 1 million devices through a recycling programme that encouraged US consumers to return their old phones to be recycled by a robot called Daisy, which could disassemble 15 different iPhone models at a rate of 200 per hour.

The value of metals discarded as electronic waste in China is forecast to be worth US$23.8 billion by 2030, a sum that could be reclaimed through recycling and “urban mining”, which is cheaper than extracting the metals through ore mining, according to Greenpeace East Asia.

One of the challenges for the recycling business is creating enough national awareness to change people’s attitudes, according to Wang of TES. “For used mobile phones, maybe people still prefer to keep them at home, even if it is an iPhone 4,” he said.

One factor is size – a phone does not take up much space compared with an electronic appliance. “Unlike air conditioners and televisions, when you upgrade to a new one, you may not have enough room to store the old one. But smartphones are different, they’re tiny and it won’t become a problem if a family wants to store them for a long time,” said Liu from Greenpeace East Asia, who added that some consumers find it “psychologically unacceptable” to see the device they spent thousands of yuan on end up worth just a couple of hundred yuan as recycled materials.

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An important concern for smartphone makers is intellectual property protection during the recycling process. Huawei’s phones, for example, are disassembled in a separate area in the TES factory, and the individual components are broken into smaller pieces before going through the process of extracting gold and copper.

Liu from Greenpeace East Asia said this procedure prevents any remaining user data from being accessed by hackers, and stops chips from being used in other devices without permission. “[Even if the smartphone is formatted], in theory, it is still possible for hackers to reclaim some of [the data], although this would be a small probability and high cost thing [for them],” he said.

Richard Liu, corporate sustainability director for the consumer business group of Huawei, said the company is working to make smartphones easier to recycle. “Some recycling workers found that some of our old phones were very hard to disassemble, and the battery would break and burn during the process,” he said.

“It was because the battery was attached to the main [circuit] board. We later changed [our design] so the battery could be easily removed [for recycling].”