The Cell Phone Recycling Industry and the Cell Phone Recycling in Shenzhen, China

16 Aug

Dela Cruz, Niki Beryl B.                                                                                        Soc Sci 180 – JX

2008 – 68733                                                                                                              June 21, 2011

The Cell Phone Recycling Industry and the Cell Phone Recycling in Shenzhen, China

            Cellular phones, as we all know, are widely used nowadays. It has become the major means of communication. In China, for instance, in the account written in 2008 by Zheng Mingqiao and Wang Jian (2008), there were 583 million cell phone users, and in an account written in 2011, China has already 889 million users which made it the country that “has the world’s largest mobile phone user population.” (2011) Millions of people use cell phones, and millions of people also dispose them after months of use and replace it with new ones. In response to this phenomenon, the Cell Phone Recycling was then introduced.

Among all the accounts that I have found, I chose two accounts that I think, best explain this phenomenon of cell phone recycling. First is the account which I already cited, Mingqiao and Jian’s article “Recycle of retired handsets has huge market potential”. The disposed mobile phones are regarded as electronic waste. It was said that, before, those disposed mobile phones were buried and burned and others were flowed to the second-hand market which, they say causes harm in the environment and society. “To discard or to burn the phones irresponsibly would cause terrible pollution to the environment, while to resell them would greatly influence the market order and the ecological environment.” By this, we can say that the reason why this phenomenon occurred is to avoid harm to the environment and society that these electronic wastes could bring. Through studies, they found out that “the raw materials of cell-phone contain more than ten kinds of valuable metals including gold, silver, copper and cobalt” and that its plastic can be used “make furniture, toys and auto parts; the packaging materials can be reproduced into fiberboard; the rechargeable batteries can be used to make television picture tube…”. These shows that recycling cell phones would enable us save resources and maximize the use of these materials by reusing them in creating other products. This trend of cell phone recycling came to China in 2005 when the “Green Boxes” project, an “environment protection plan” was launched. But prior to this, there were already electronic wastes recycling existed in other countries. It was brought to China “in order to realize scientific industrialization of cell-phone recycling”. Aside from the fact that there are many disposed cell phone in China because there are many cell phone users there, they had also established an institution that “specialized in dealing with recycling and treating electronic waste” which helped the industry to developed, the Shanghai Central WEEE Recycling Co., Ltd. From then, many other companies in China followed the trend of cell phone recycling.


The second account that, for me, best explains, this phenomenon is a entry entitled “How China Recycles Millions of Cellphones Every Year” (2001). If in the first article, they talked about cell phone recycling, in general, and cell phone recycling in China, the article tackled about cell phone recycling in Shenzhen, China. The blogger, which is not named, quoted another blogger David, who had witnessed the rampancy of this phenomenon in that city. He told how cell phones are recycled and even showed pictures of how they are done. Shenzhen was labelled as the “cell phone recycling city”. It could be because there is a part of it that is primary dedicated to cell phones, the “hidden corner of Hua Qiang Bei”.

I chose the two articles because I did not found a single article that explains the nature and “what abouts” of cell phone recycling particularly in Shenzhen. The first article showed the cause and the developments of cell phone recycling while the second one showed that Shenzhen plays a big role in the cell phone recycling industry as it make the industry very alive with the big market of recycled cell phones and factories of cell phone recycling exist there. The first would answer “what about cell phone recycling?” or “why recycle cell phones?” and while the second one will answer “how is cell phone recycling in Shenzhen?”. I think, with these two accounts together, we can have the inference to the best explanation.





Mingqiao, Zheng & Wang Jian (2008). Recycle of retired handsets has huge market potential. Retrieved: June 19, 2011  Retrieved: June 19, 2011





























Recycle of retired handsets has huge market potential

Last Updated(Beijing Time):2008-10-20 09:32


By Zheng Mingqiao and Wang Jian
With the fast development of the communication industry, tens of millions of cell-phones are being replaced each year in China. For the lack of effective recovery system, a great many of retired cell-phones were buried and burned, or flowed to the second-hand market, which have caused great harm to the environment and society. According to the statistics from the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology, the number of cell-phone users has reached 583 million in China by the end of April this year. Experts estimate that in 2008 there will be as many as 200 million cell-phones replaced in China. Suppose each phone is 100 grams in weight, there will be twenty thousand tons electronic wastes in a year.
How to recycle and deal with these used phones has become a topic of concerns. To discard or to burn the phones irresponsibly would cause terrible pollution to the environment, while to resell them would greatly influence the market order and the ecological environment.
The recycled value exceeds one hundred million Yuan.
Statistics show that the raw materials of cell-phone contain more than ten kinds of valuable metals including gold, silver, copper and cobalt. Through scientific decomposition, at least 150 gram of gold, 3 kilogram of silver and 100 kilogram of copper can be extracted from one ton of used cell-phones, which is thirty times more than the gold ore; the cell-phone plastic can be used to make furniture, toys and auto parts; the packaging materials can be reproduced into fiberboard; the rechargeable batteries can be used to make television picture tube…
The number of retired cell-phones in China is increasing at a rate of five to ten percent each year. Zhu Qiaoling, a professor from Zhongnan University of Economics and Law, believes that if recycle of used cell-phones can be systemized, it would make a “Golden Industry” with vast potential.
It’s learned that this “Golden Industry” in foreign countries is very mature and makes a unique industrial chain. British Foneback Corporation is reclaiming old phones by offering new ones through cell-phone retailers. Cell-phones that are still usable will be renovated with quality guarantee and sold at a relative low price; those un-renewable phones will be disassembled to extract metal materials such platinum, gold, silver, copper and plastic, which will be sent to specialized companies to be reused. Now Fonebak has reclaimed more than 3.5 million of cell-phones, creating annual revenue of over sixty million pounds.
In America, a cooperation program of voluntary recycling of electronic products was launched in 2003, in which the government, producers, retailers and consumers together took on the recovery obligation, and remarkable economic result has been achieved. It’s calculated that the recycling of one hundred million cell-phones equals to the saving of power consumption of 194,000 American households in one year. Japan has made laws to promote cell-phone reclamation to ensure the supply of rare metals. In 2006, it has collected 6,622,000 used cell-phones. After burning at low temperature, most of the rare metals, such as platinum, indium and lithium, contained in these phones can be extracted and reused.
Business model needs to be established.
In recent years, in order to realize scientific industrialization of cell-phone recycling, researches have been carried out actively in China. At the end of 2005, China Mobile, through cooperation with cell-phone producers including Motorola and Nokia, started the “Green Box” environment protection plan in forty key cities in China, by placing “Green Boxes” to recycle used cell-phones and parts in over one thousand China Mobile service outlets and hundreds of cell-phone sales centers. Now these “Green boxes” have collected tens of thousands of retired cell-phones and parts.
In March of last year, the former Ministry of Information Industry cooperated with Tianjin Government and set up the state-level demonstration base for the recovery and disassembly of retired electronic products; in May, Shanghai Central WEEE Recycling Co., Ltd. was established, specialized in dealing with the recycling and treatment of electronic wastes; in July, Shanghai Xikui Electronic Technology Co., Ltd. (Beijing Branch) was designated as the experiment unit for the recovery, treatment and reuse of cell-phone products. The recovery of retired electronic products started and spread to all aspects.
Many cell-phone producers and sellers have also joined the activity of cell-phone recycling. Besides the “Green Box” plan, Gome Communication Inc. under Gomes Group initiated the recovery program of retired cell-phones in May this year. Over 1200 Gomes stores in China set up recycling boxes and encouraged cell-phone recycling in various ways.
However, with the absence of mature business models, it’s still hard to find a good destination for the large amount of used cell-phones. If the cell-phone recycling stays at the level of “responsibility” and “obligation”, relied only on governmental mandate and the self-discipline of companies, it would greatly suppress the enthusiasm of cell-phone users and participating companies. Therefore there must be reasonable profit driving mechanism and effective business operation model between government, producers, retailers and users, so as to realize the systemized recycling.
It’s a matter of urgency to adopt the method of “producer responsibility extension” to promote industrialized recycling. “Cell-phone manufacturers and recycling units are still working separately in China, which leads to difficulties in the recycling business.” Sun Yong, a professor from economy department of Huazhong Normal University, believes that producer obligation laws need to be established, in order to regulate the recovery obligation by law. “On one hand, manufactures should be encouraged to make ‘green cell-phones’ which are easy to recycle. On the other hand, producers and recycling units should be urged to enhance the cooperation and establish the ecological chain of cell-phone recovery and reutilization.” Sun Yong expressed that only mutual cooperation among upper-stream and lower-stream companies can promote the desirable circle of cell-phone production, sales, recovery and reutilization.

China has the world’s largest mobile phone user population, at an incredible 889 million. And 29.6 % of these users buy Nokia devices. But what happens when the Chinese, who on average change their device every 15 months, want a new one? Most of them unfortunately just throw their old phone away with as few 1% recycled. To combat this trend Nokia introduced the “Green Box” project in 2005. This concept introduced collection boxes at more than 700 Nokia service centers at mobile phone retail outlets in nearly 300 cities. To see what happens to those Nokia devices that don’t get recycled there, check out these amazing pictures, taken by Dutch Artist/Designer David Kousemaker.

Cellphone recycling city

In 2010, David’s fascination for the impact technology has on culture lead him to Shenzen, Guangdong Province, where he documented how cellphones are traded as a commodity or even as a raw material. David writes on his blog Tech Travels, “In a hidden corner of Hua Qiang Bei there are two large buildings that are primarily dedicated to cellphones. One entrepreneur I talked to, told me he bought his phones in bulk from a wholesaler who got them from garbage sorters in Hong Kong and other major cities in Asia.”

“Outside,” he writes, “I see a guy sorting through big bags of phone circuit boards. I’m not sure but I think he might be picking out the ones with particular chipsets that are in demand right now.”

The plastic shells are also then removed. David says, “There isn’t much money to be made there, but the low price of Chinese labor makes it worth someone’s time to separate the last bits of metal from the plastic.”

Then the components are picked off one by one and sorted.

“Next,” David says, “the solder is removed and the components are cleaned and sorted further. For many of the shops, this seems to be the main activity. With some exceptions, this work seems to be predominantly done by teenage girls and young women.”

Some of the parts are so small they can only be handled with tweezers.

If you want to see more of the amazing shots David’s taken, of the unintended ecosystems that spring up around consumer electronics in developing nations, check out his blog. We’re sure you’ll agree his pictures give an amazing insight into how electronic “junk” can be reused and recycled.

And if you know of any more markets around the world where phones are taken apart like this, please do let us know.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: