Tackling Toxicity in the Life-Cycle of Mobile Phones

How to reduce exposure to toxic chemicals for people involved in the production of mobile phone was the topic of a SMART stakeholder meeting in Brussels on 27 September.

Field work at Umicore’s recycling plant in Hoboken, Belgium to better understand the process of e-waste recycling, 28 September March 2017. Photo: SMART/Mark Taylor

The meeting came in the wake of the report of the Special Rapporteur on the implications for human rights of the environmentally sound management and disposal of hazardous substances and wastes. The report found that one worker dies every 15 seconds from toxic exposure at work.

Several of the cases mentioned in the report are related to the mobile phone life cycle, such as children mining cobalt for use in mobile phone batteries in DR Congo, women using mercury in artisan gold mining, and workers in the electronics manufacturing industry.

The meeting was the third stakeholder meeting organised by the SMART project, and it focused particularly on the end-of-life phase in the life-cycle of mobile phones. It was held at the offices of Umicore, and around the table were business people, trade unionists, civil society activists and researchers and European Commission officials.

Risks and policy responses

The discussion focused both on the nature of the risks posed by hazardous materials in the production of mobile phones – or electronics in general – as well as on policy and regulation in response to these.

The objective of the meeting was to provide the SMART researchers with input to research into the regulatory ecology surrounding toxicity, both the challenges to reducing exposure to toxic chemicals through the mobile phone life-cycle as well as the opportunities for strengthening law and policy concerned with toxicity.

Hazardous materials and mercury pollution

The participants discussed the risk of toxicity, and practical responses to that risk, at each phase in the mobile phone life-cycle, from design and the mining of minerals and manufacturing, through to the end of life of a phone.

A key challenge at the resource extraction phase is artisanal and small-scale mining (ASM). ASM is the single greatest course of mercury pollution world-wide, and at the same time a vital source of household income to millions of people in developing countries.

In the EU, regulation of hazardous materials and working conditions is quite robust, and often matched by regulations in other main markets. Still, challenges face workers in the manufacturing sector globally, and safeguards are particularly weak in places where information about hazards is poor and workers are not organised.

Low recycling rates

A key challenge arises in the collection of e-waste. Sustainable e-waste recycling is capital intensive and industrialised, meaning there are a few safe and clean facilities world-wide.

Collection rates for phones are low – about  15% globally – and many either “stay in the drawer” or are exported to developing countries as part of the second-hand market in phones. Those eventually end up in scrap yards, such as Agbogbloshie in Ghana, where recycling is conducted by hand, often at risk to workers.

More repair and recycling, less toxic waste

In addition to hearing about the risks, the meeting focused on both regulatory and industry-based initiatives to the problem of toxicity in mobile phones. These include attempts to design phones with a view to using fewer toxic materials, both in the phone itself and in the production process.

Design also plays a vital role in the sustainability of the phone as a product, through marketing influence on consumer demand, ensuring that the phone will be durable and work for a long time, and be easy to repair in case it gets broken.   

The participants agreed that regulation is needed to ensure lower barriers to the creation of a market for repair, and that there is a need to increase recycling rates in order to reduce toxic waste from old mobile phones.     

By Mark Taylor, Iselin Rønningsbakk
Published Nov. 7, 2018 10:04 AM - Last modified Nov. 7, 2018 11:40 AM