Progress in smartphone recycling is still insufficient

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Under pressure due to their large environmental impact, the smartphone industry has pledged to increase its efforts to recycle and refurbish handsets.

But, at what point is the sector now and what are the prospects? Below is a review of the current situation on the occasion of the World Mobile Telephony Congress (MWC) that is being held these days in Barcelona.

After a slow start at the beginning of the 2010s, the activity has accelerated strongly in recent years, both in reconditioning (which is the repair and adaptation of used equipment), and in the recycling of components (metals , rare earths, plastics…).

According to Persistence Market Research, 11% of terminals sold in the world are refurbished. A rate “lower than that of other electronic products”, although “on the rise”, thanks to the progress made in terms of collection and repair, underlines the consultant.

“More and more players are launching recycling programs, due to regulatory and consumer pressure,” adds Thomas Husson, an analyst at Forrester. “We are still at low rates, but it is starting to take off.”

For environmental associations, however, these advances are still insufficient. “Of all the electronic waste, only 20% is recycled, when in reality we could recover much more,” recalls Claudia Bosch, from the Catalan NGO Setem, organizer of a “social mobile congress” that is being held these days in Barcelona, ​​as counterpoint to the mighty MWC.

In recent years, many companies have emerged in the recycling sector, such as the Back Market resale page, from the “ethical” telephone manufacturer Fairphone, or Recommerce, specializing in second-hand devices.

And they have not been the only ones. A sign that this is a market on the rise, the smartphone giants themselves have also gotten into the refurbishment business. Thus, Apple and Samsung have promised to increase the percentage of recycled materials included in their devices and now have their own recycling subsidiaries.

“The ability to recycle smartphones has become an important issue for all manufacturers, but also for operators” telephone, insists Thomas Husson. “There are image issues at stake, everyone tries to differentiate themselves,” he adds.

In Barcelona, ​​the British group Vodafone announced a collaboration with Recommerce to favor the collection of old devices, while the French Orange already promised last year to increase the number of refurbished smartphones it sells in its stores from 2% to 10%. .

According to experts, the sector should experience notable growth, driven by the growing appetite of consumers for “green” products and the slowdown in innovations in the smartphone market, which increases the attractiveness of mobile products. second hand.

The refurbished smartphone sector should grow by 10% per year between now and 2027, especially in Asian markets such as India or Indonesia, according to the study office Mordor Intelligence.

An analysis also shared by Persistence Market Research, which projects a strong increase in the turnover of recycled terminals, which would jump from 49.9 billion dollars in 2020 to 143.8 billion in 2031.

Although the perspectives are positive, the sector must still face different obstacles, some technical, that derive from the collection of waste. For recycling to be effective, “enormous organization” is needed, emphasizes Thomas Husson.

But the main reluctance is cultural. “More and more refurbished phones are sold with guarantees. But there is always a concern among consumers, who have doubts about the quality of the product,” the analyst recalls.

Furthermore, the commercial practices of the manufacturers themselves and the operators do not favor reconditioning either.

“There is a culture of consumerism that is constantly bombarding us with new offers,” describes Claudia Bosch. “There’s a lot of marketing that encourages us to throw things away.”

A paradoxical strategy if one attends to the environmental message sent by the giants of the sector.

“If we really care about the planet, we must bet on the durability of the product. However, this goes against the dominant economic model”, based on a “regular renewal of the devices, often subsidized by the operators”, affects Thomas Husson.

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