London: Ahead of COP27, the GSMA has released a new long-term vision on how the mobile industry can increase the circularity of its supply and production chains for mobile devices.
The GSMA Circular Economy Strategy Paper: Mobile Devices outlines the following vision for the industry:
- Devices with the longest possible lifespan,
- made with 100% recyclable and recycled content,
- 100% renewable energy,
- and where no device ends up as waste
This ambition is supported by a newly developed “Circularity Model” for the mobile industry, which sets out the principles operators should consider when aiming to build a circular supply and manufacturing chain by 2050, based on two general concepts of “maximized longevity”. and “zero waste”.
Steven Moore, Head of Climate Action at the GSMA and Head of Mobile for the United Nations Climate Champions, said: “The mobile industry is making real progress on circularity, but there is still a long way to go. to do to reduce the environmental impact of the devices we rely on every day. to stay connected. By defining a new vision of systemic change for the sector, we are laying the foundation for the mobile industry to reduce material waste and increase device longevity. »
Erik Wottrich, Head of Sustainability at Tele2, who led the development of the strategy document, said: “Increased circularity for devices has enormous potential to reduce negative environmental impact, and at the same time to enable new business models that can generate new business opportunities. This is a big step forward for us as an industry, but there is still a lot of work to be done. Tele2 is proud to have led the development of the strategy as we are committed to advancing the circular economy by developing new customer offerings based on a circular business model, which will be essential for us to reduce our negative climate impact and achieve our reach 3/target based on the science of the value chain.
Mobile phones play an essential and positive role in the lives of people around the world, connecting us to our loved ones, enabling digital inclusion and ensuring economic progress around the world. However, throughout their life cycle they also have environmental impacts, both positive and negative. Mobile phones help reduce carbon emissions by reducing the need to travel, but also have environmental impacts of their own.
Over the life cycle of a mobile phone, the majority of the environmental impact – around 80% – is found in its manufacture. More than 50 different materials can currently be found in an average smartphone, including plastics, ceramics, rare metals, copper and silicon. The extraction of these materials can have negative environmental and social impacts. Manufacturing and assembly also contribute to greenhouse gas emissions from the use of fossil fuels.
Currently, about 2 billion phones are sold each year and more than 90% of the world’s population owns a mobile phone. However, 85% of cell phones are currently not formally recycled, limiting the life cycle of the materials used to make them and reducing opportunities to improve digital inclusion by expanding access to affordable reused devices.
Extending the life of all smartphones worldwide by one year could save up to 21.4 million tons of CO2 emissions per year by 2030, which is equivalent to removing more than 4 .7 million traffic cars.
The GSMA paper highlights the importance of engaging all elements of the supply chain to drive a step change in the circularity of the mobile device market – from carriers to suppliers, manufacturers to consumers, repairers to recyclers; all have a role to play.
The circularity model
The GSMA’s new “circularity model” is built around the principles of “maximized longevity” and “zero waste”. Longevity is important to reduce the impact of device production. The average life of a phone is about three yearshowever the technical lifetime is between four and seven years and the optimal lifespan of a mobile phone in terms of minimizing its impact on the climate could be at least 25 years.
Signs of optimism
While the GSMA vision charts a future path towards true circularity, progress is already being made by mobile operators. Research shows that 11% of smartphones sold globally today are refurbished and the market is growing.
Consumers are also increasingly interested in second-hand products as well as broader sustainability, which means appliances are used longer and appliance recycling programs are used more frequently.,
Over the past seven years, the mobile phone replacement cycle has increased by 10 months, from 24 months in 2014 to 34 months in 2021 globally. This trend is expected to continue with the refurbished mobile device market expected to be worth over $140 billion by 2030, up from $49.9 billion in 2020.
 Miliute-Plepiene, J. & Youhanan, L. (2019). Electronic waste and raw materials: from environmental issues to economic models. IVL Swedish Institute for Environmental Research.
 BEE. 2019. Coolproducts don’t cost the earth – full report. Brussels: BEE. & Miliute-Plepiene, J. & Youhanan, L. (2019). Electronic waste and raw materials: from environmental issues to economic models. IVL Swedish Institute for Environmental Research.
 CapGemini 2021, Circular Economy for a Sustainable Future.