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ANALYSIS - Mobile Phone Cost Impact Seen in UN Recycle Plan

ANALYSIS - Mobile Phone Cost Impact Seen in UN Recycle Plan
LONDON - The United Nations is working towards a world agreement on the scrapping of metal-intensive mobile phones that could impact the cost of making them.

The UN, the scrap industry and mobile phone makers and operators, such as Nokia and Vodafone, are working together as part of the UN Basel Convention on the control and disposal of waste.

It could expand agreements already in place in Europe, North America and Japan in the lead up to a key conference in Africa next year.

The Bureau of International Recycling (BIR), a Brussels-based body whose members include Australia's Sims Group Ltd, the world's largest recycling company, and Germany's Verein Deutscher Metall-Handler EV (VDM), said a comprehensive worldwide framework is needed to collect, process and dispose of such waste.

"In practical terms we hope that any projects set up become sustainable and that these become established routes for bringing electronic waste back into recycling and recovery," the BIR's environment and technical director Ross Bartley told Reuters from Brussels.

The EU already has in place a system for disposal whereby phone makers bear the brunt of the cost. Neither the UN nor the scrap industry would provide figures for the costs that might result from the wider agreement.

Mobile phones contain valuable metals such as platinum, gold, copper, aluminium and magnesium as well as plastics.

An increased number of discarded home appliances are disguised as ordinary household waste and traded internationally to extract rare metals and expensive components from them, according to industry figures.

The remaining parts are often dumped illegally.

"Those (disposal) routes have to be properly established and maintained," Bartley said.

"Without them people will keep storing mobile phones at home feeling that they might be worth something before belatedly releasing them into the waste stream."

The United Nations held preliminary talks with representatives from phone makers and the scrap industry in Geneva last week ahead of a bi-annual conference in Nairobi in late 2006.

A further preparatory meeting is scheduled sometime before the main conference in Kenya.


A waste electronic and electronic equipment (WEEE) directive from Brussels is due to come into effect next month, while some parts of the United States and Japan have similar legislation.

Under WEEE electronic shredding firms extract the various metals in mobile phones for sale to smelters.

Alternatively, smelters can simply remove hazardous batteries from phones that contain potential health risks such as cadmium, lead and berylium alloys before smelting them.

"The WEEE directive and the Basel Convention are not incompatible," a UN spokeswoman.

"These talks are mainly focused on developing countries and emerging economies," she said.

She said there had been no firm progress in initial talks as to whether phone makers should pay, as under WEEE.

France Telecom, Europe's second-largest integrated telecoms operator in sales terms, will soon start a pilot project with an electronic shredder in England, she added.

Although she was unable to give further details, disposal costs are sometimes shared between the phone maker and scrap company, with the shredder keeping the separated metals.

"If you take an average weight of a mobile phone at around 100 grammes then it's obvious there's not a phenomenal amount of contained metals," Bartley said.

EU states are expected to dispose of around 7.5 million tonnes a year of electronic circuit-board material.

The Basel Convention on the "Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal" entered into force in 1992 and is the only comprehensive world environmental agreement on hazardous and other wastes.

It has more than 160 member parties and aims to protect human health and the environment against the adverse effects resulting from the generation, management, transboundary movements and disposal of hazardous and other wastes.

Story by Declan Conway

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