Let’s recycle our old phones

Reduce our Group's CO2 emissions by 30% from 2015 to 2025 as part of our aim to reach net zero carbon emissions by 2040: this is the commitment made by Stéphane Richard when announcing the Engage 2025 plan. To achieve this strategic ambition, which is 10 years ahead of the objectives set by the GSMA and despite growing data on our networks, we have to increase our efforts in terms of energy efficiency. This also requires increased investment in the circular economy and in particular recycling mobile phones. We asked three questions to Antoine De Clerck, Head of Sustainable Marketing at Orange.

What are the environmental impacts of mobile phones today?

One of the main impacts of technology on the environment is due to the lifecycle of electronic devices, in particular smartphones. There have been an estimated 10 billion devices sold worldwide since 2007, which includes more than 1.5 billion in 2018  alone! However, these technological marvels are made up of plastic, glass and small quantities of precious metals and rare earth elements. In the main, they are also the product of a linear economy model: mining, manufacturing concentrated in Asia, fast renewal and short lifespan, with little collection or recycling.

It’s therefore estimated that it takes around 70kg of raw material to make a 120g smartphone (500 times its weight!). Raw material has to take four turns around the world before the phone arrives in our hands. On average, the French upgrade their phone every two years but in 88% of cases their device still work. If in France Orange manages to collect 30% of these used phones, the number drops to around 10% worldwide. Many of them lie around in our drawers for a while before unfortunately eventually ending up in landfill.

Antoine de Clerck
On average, the French upgrade their phone every two years but in 88% of cases their devices still work.
Antoine de Clerck, Head of Sustainable Marketing at Orange.

All of this is a bit invisible to the general public, but nevertheless risks depleting natural resources if we don't develop a circular economy for preserving them. It’s worth pointing out that 80% of a smartphone’s environmental impact is due to its manufacturing and end-of-life phases, and 20% occurs in-life, mainly due to recharging the battery.

Why is Orange involved in collecting and recycling mobile phones?

It is possible to drastically cut the environmental harm caused by mobile phones. How? By incorporating their manufacturing, in-life and end-of-life phases into a circular economy as follows: make them out of recycled materials, reduce energy consumption and natural resources in production processes, limit the impact of transportation, adopt eco-design processes to make devices last longer and easier to repair, and facilitate recycling. We can all use our buying power as consumers, as we can choose models that are more eco-friendly and try to use our devices for longer. For example, we can repair our devices instead of upgrading them, keep them as long as they work, only buy refurbished models etc. And finally, if you do decide to upgrade, bring your old phone back to Orange!

Although we mainly sell third-party branded models, we believe it is our corporate responsibility to collect all used devices. For the 10 years to 2018, we have collected more than 15 million phones across Europe. Although this comes at a cost, we’re committed to collecting at least 30% of our total sales volumes per year by 2025 in each of our European operating countries.

Good to know: if the phone still works and has a market value, it can be exchanged for a voucher or discount as part of our “Orange reprise” initiative. It will then be sent to our specialist partners who will erase the data and refurbish the device ready for a second life.

Otherwise, used mobiles can be taken to some recycling centres to limit their environmental harm and recover raw material which can be used to make new products.

Are we doing anything in Africa and the Middle East?

What applies in Europe also applies in Africa! Unfortunately a lot of electronic waste ends up in huge open dumps across the continent. A smartphone’s lifecycle is a little different because it’s said that in Africa or the Middle East, a phone never dies! It is commonly passed from hand to hand, and there are many repair shops in case it breaks. When it no longer works, these shops can keep them for spare parts. However, as for the materials and parts that are not reused, they end up being thrown away or in landfill. The collection effort needs to be done in the same way, not via end consumers but involving repair shops, sometimes on an informal basis.

We’re taking part in a collection initiative with local repair shops, supporting the effort by setting up sorting workshops. In the absence of a local supply chain, this waste is then transported to France for recycling. The first workshop was launched in Burkina Faso in 2010. Since then, four other workshops have opened in Benin, Niger, Côte d'Ivoire and Cameroon. In total, 30 local jobs have been created and each year, and nearly 12 tonnes of waste is collected per workshop (the equivalent of 80,000 mobiles) and transported to France for recycling.

We’re committed to strengthening our efforts to collect electronic waste in Africa and the Middle East to reach at least the equivalent of 20% sales volumes in the region by 2025, and also help to set up local supply chains.