We live in an increasingly throw-away society. Rather than keep or repair technology and gadgets, we throw away and replace. Nowhere is this truer than in the field of mobile phones.

On average we only keep our mobile phones for two years. The thing is that mobile phones contain materials that can be saved and recycled, so it’s important that they don’t go into landfill or just languish in that drawer that contains all your old mains adaptors and remote control!

So what should happen to your old mobile at the end of a life well lived?

What happens to your old mobile phone when it is recycled?

Where can you dispose of your old mobile phones?

There are a number of things you can do with your old mobile. Although you may think that a two or three-year-old handset is pretty worthless once you’ve upgraded to the latest, all-singing, all-dancing model, you’d be wrong. Ideally, you should sell the phone to a company that refurbishes and resells the phone, giving it a new lease of life.

Alternatively, many charities accept old phones, whether they are working or not. Search online or look out for Freepost envelopes in shops. If you have a relatively modern phone you may be able to sell it yourself on eBay or Gumtree. Alternatively, if you buy your new phone in a high street store, ask if they have a means of recycling the old one. If you are pretty sure that your phone has no value, you can take it to your local recycling centre and drop it in the ‘small electricals’ container.

Before you dispose or sell any mobile phone it’s important to make sure you’re not going to compromise your personal data. Take out the SIM card - you might have done this anyway if you’ve transferred it to your new phone - and carry out a ‘factory reset’ if it’s still working. This will make sure that any contacts you may have stored on the phone, any account information or other details that are on there are safely deleted.

If you do want to keep a spare phone in case your main handset goes wrong, it doesn’t necessarily have to be the most recent. Your last phone is likely to have the most value so it makes sense to sell that and keep an older - but still working - model as an emergency spare. Who knows, if you do have to use it, your old Nokia may even gain you some retro kudos.

Phone recycling

While it’s tempting to just throw an old phone in the bin, some items in a mobile phone are classed as ‘hazardous waste’ so it is important that these are disposed of and recycled in a professional and responsible way. If they are allowed to go to into landfill these items can cause pollution of soil and watercourses. Some of the materials used are also quite scarce, so it’s important that they are reclaimed and reused wherever possible.

A number of things can happen when a phone goes to be recycled. First of all, it’s stripped of any parts that may be reusable as spares for other handsets. These might include components such as antennas, battery connections, printed circuit boards (PCBs), keyboards, memory chips, camera lenses, speakers and microphones, screws, SIM card holders, LCD screens, and more.

From what’s left - or if parts aren’t worth recovering - metals can be recovered. Some PCBs have gold-plated contacts, so metal recovery is worthwhile. Useful metals can be recovered from old batteries too as well as other parts of the phone. Mobile phones can contain a variety of different metals, not just gold but also lead, copper, zinc, beryllium and more. Many of these take significant effort and resource to extract and refine, so reusing them is important.

Plastics from outer cases or other parts can be recovered too. They can be ground up into granules which are then melted down and used to create other mouldings.

The parts of your old phone may, therefore, have a useful life when you are finished with it. It’s good to know that if you dispose of your old handset responsibly, you can do your bit for the planet. Of course, another option is to hold onto your phones for a bit longer. Ask yourself if you really need the latest model? Keeping your phone even for an extra year can make a big difference.