Yet phone manufacturers – global brands including Apple and Samsung – won’t tell us if their cobalt supply chains are tainted by child labour. They have a responsibility to do so, to check for and address child labour in their supply chains, setting an example for the rest of the industry to follow.
Many toxic chemicals go into mobile phones, making their disposal a potential health hazard. This often takes place in the developing world, where labour costs and environmental standards are lower. Greenpeace and Amnesty International highlights the danger that some workers are exposed to when processing old mobile phones without proper equipment, and has persuaded some companies, including Sony and Nokia, to eliminate harmful chemicals including flame retardants and PVC plastic from their products. If you are one of the 15 million people in the UK who are disposing of a mobile phone this year, you can help to alleviate the environmental strain by recycling your handset. Many supermarkets, charity shops and mobile phone retailers offer recycling services, often for a good cause.
More than one-third of electronic goods are made in poor countries, notably China, Thailand and Mexico. Some of the larger manufacturers have been accused of ignoring labour regulations by preventing workers from forming associations and enforcing compulsory overtime in their factories.
A report by the United Nations University (UNU) reveals that the amount of “e-waste” generated globally is increasing by two million tons a year and reached 50 megatons by 2018 – with Britons among the planet’s biggest generators of e-waste. Britain ranks fifth in the world in the weight of material discarded per inhabitant, with each Briton generating 23.5kg each year. Landfill disposal or incineration is entirely inappropriate for computers, which contain dangerous chemicals including mercury and hexavalent chromium.
Another potential answer relates to the reconditioning old machines. As an alternative to disposal, an attractive possibility is to arrange for the computer’s re-use. Ageing machines can be reconditioned and then re-sold to another user. This process has the advantage of conserving the raw materials and energy used in manufacturing. The refurbishment of computers can also provide a social benefit, enabling less wealthy institutions and individuals to purchase the equipment at a lower price. Several charities arrange for unwanted computers to be sent to schools or developing countries after reconditioning.