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When your phone stops ringing

Old cell phones are a valuable source of raw materials. By recycling and reusing the metals from these devices, we can reduce our ecological footprint and contribute to a sustainable planet. 
Over the past decades, the cell phone has evolved from rare to indispensable. The number of cell phone users has increased exponentially worldwide. We use our cell phones to call home when we’re late, to chat with friends, to take photos and as a valid alternative to our personal computers. But have you ever thought about what happens to cell phones when you don’t need them anymore or when yours shows signs that it is ready to bite the dust? 
The average lifespan of a cell phone is two to three years. At the moment, many old cell phones are gathering dust. That's a shame, because cell phones contain a lot of valuable and rare metals that can be recycled and reused. So long as a cell phone is stored at the bottom of a drawer, this mine remains untapped.  

Urban mining, close to zero waste

A viable alternative to extracting metals from traditional mining is to extract the metals found in phones left in cupboards and drawers at home. However, collecting those phones is not as easy as it seems: although there are collection schemes for electronic scrap, in practice it remains difficult to convince consumers to get rid of their old cell phones. 
Mobile phones are the electronic devices sold in the largest quantities yet at the same time they have the lowest collection rate, close to only 3%. To improve this situation, working take-back schemes are needed. Good collection is the key to efficient urban mining. 
At Umicore we recycle the whole device, both the actual cell phone or handset and the battery. The procedure is similar for both waste streams, but the actual process is different. Umicore weighs, samples and melts the input fraction and extracts the most valuable metals at the highest efficiency. In the case of cell phones, we recover the metals from the circuit board: gold, silver, palladium and copper. From the batteries we extract mainly cobalt, lithium and nickel. We recycle all these metals to their purest form, so they can be reused in new applications. 
Umicore also processes the plastic components of the devices. This process achieves  close to zero waste. The incineration of the plastic components provides energy for the melting process of the metals, which are then available again for the production of new cell phones.  

Environment and circularity

We should not throw away our mobile phones with household waste. Instead, we should prevent them from ending up in landfill where the materials they contain can potentially be harmful to the environment. Efficient and environmentally sound treatment of mobile phones requires sophisticated facilities.   
By recycling end-of-life mobile phones in an environmentally sound way and at high quality standards,  the need for energy and natural resources to create new cell phones is reduced.  
The development of a circular model for metals will become increasingly important. Infinite recyclability without losing any of their properties and without loss of quality, makes metals an excellent choice for a closed-loop approach.  

Facts and figures

Umicore operates a highly sophisticated recycling and refining facility, able to recover up to 17 precious and other metals from up to 200 different types of raw materials. Our unique metallurgical flowsheet is a combination of pyrometallurgical and hydrometallurgical processing steps.

100,000 handsets (= without battery) = 8.5 ton 
provide the following amounts of recovered metals:

    • Silver: 9 kg
    • Gold: 2 kg
    • Palladium: 250 g
    • Copper: 900 kg

Umicore offers a closed loop approach for rechargeable batteries, by providing recycling services for rechargeable Lithium-Ion (Li-ion) and Nickel Metal Hydride batteries (NiMH) from all possible applications. From these batteries, valuable metals are recovered so that they can be recycled to their purest form and converted into active cathode materials for the production of new rechargeable batteries.