GSMA publishes vision for a ‘circular economy’ of mobile devices
Nov 2, 2022
London: In the lead-up to COP27, the GSMA has published a new, long-term vision for how the mobile industry can increase the circularity of its supply and production chains for mobile devices.
The GSMA’s Strategy Paper for Circular Economy: Mobile Devices lays out the following vision for the industry:
- Devices with as long a lifetime as possible,
- made with 100% recyclable and recycled content,
- 100% renewable energy,
- and where no device ends up as waste
This ambition is backed up by a newly developed ‘circularity model’ for the mobile industry, which lays out the principles that operators should consider as they aim to build a circular supply and manufacturing chain by 2050, based on two overarching concepts of “maximised longevity” and “zero waste”.
Steven Moore, Head of Climate Action at GSMA and Mobile Sector Lead for the UN Climate Champions said: “The mobile industry is making real progress on circularity, but there’s a lot more to do to reduce the environmental impact of devices we rely on every day to stay connected. By setting out a new vision of systemic change for the sector, we’re laying the groundwork for the mobile industry to reduce material waste and increase the longevity of devices.”
Erik Wottrich, Head of Sustainability at Tele2 who led the development of the strategy paper said: “An increased circularity for devices has a huge 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 great step forward for us as an industry, but there is still much work to be done. Tele2 is proud to have led the development of the strategy paper as we are committed to advancing circular economy by developing new customer offerings based on a circular business model, which will be key for us to reduce our negative climate impact and to achieve our scope 3/value-chain science-based target.
Mobile phones play an essential and positive role in the lives of people around the globe, connecting us to loved ones, enabling digital inclusion and delivering economic progress worldwide. However, over their life cycle, they also have environmental impacts – both positive and negative. Mobile phones contribute to carbon reduction by reducing the need to travel, but also cause environmental impacts of their own.
Of the life cycle of a mobile phone, the majority of environmental impact – around 80% – is in its manufacture. Over 50 different materials can currently be found in an average smartphone, including plastics, ceramics, rare metals, copper and silicon. Mining for these materials can cause negative environmental and social impacts. Manufacturing and assembly also contribute to greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuel use.
Currently, around 2 billion phones are sold annually, and more than 90% of the global population owns a mobile phone. However, 85% of mobile phones are not currently formally recycled, limiting the life cycle of the materials used to build them, and reducing opportunities to improve digital inclusion by extending access to affordable re-used devices.
Extending the lifetime of all smartphones in the world by one year has the potential to save up to 21.4 million tonnes of CO2 emissions annually by 2030, equal to taking more than 4.7 million cars off the road.
The GSMA’s paper emphasises the importance of engaging all elements of the supply chain to drive a step-change in the circularity of the mobile device market – from operators to suppliers, manufacturers to consumers, repairers to recyclers; all have a role to play.
The Circularity Model
The GSMA’s new ‘circularity model’ revolves around the principles of “maximised longevity” and “zero waste”. Longevity is important in reducing the impact of producing devices. The average use time of a phone is around three years, however the technical lifespan is between four and seven years and the optimal lifetime for a mobile phone in terms of minimising its climate impact could be at least 25 years.
Signs For Optimism
Whilst the GSMA’s vision lays out a future pathway towards true circularity, progress is already being made by mobile operators. Research shows that 11% of smartphones sold worldwide today are refurbished and the market is increasing.
Consumers are also becoming more interested in second-hand products as well as sustainability at large, meaning devices are used for longer and device recycling schemes are more frequently used.,
In the past seven years, the mobile phone replacement cycle has increased by 10 months, from 24 months in 2014 to 34 months in 2021 worldwide. This trend is expected to continue with the refurbished mobile device market predicted to be worth more than $140bn by 2030 compared to $49.9bn in 2020.
 Miliute-Plepiene, J. & Youhanan, L. (2019). E-waste and raw materials: from environmental issues to business models. IVL Swedish Environmental Research Institute.
 EEB. 2019. Coolproducts don’t cost the earth – full report. Brussels: EEB. & Miliute-Plepiene, J. & Youhanan, L. (2019). E-waste and raw materials: from environmental issues to business models. IVL Swedish Environmental Research Institute.
 CapGemini 2021, Circular Economy for a Sustainable Future.
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