How many are they? Estimates range from simple to double, between 50 and more than 110 million “used” units would sleep, unused, among the French, according to Ademe (Ecological Transition Agency).
A really dormant waste. Presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron plans to fund a “return bonus” to encourage the reuse of these devices.
Every other year on average
The French renew their smartphone on average every two years. These so-called “smart” phones have been around for ten years, and today more than three-quarters of French people have one… or even more, according to INSEE.
However, when renewed, only a small minority of units – around 16% – are recycled. Many users keep the old one, “just in case” or … out of laziness to resell it, give it away or through ignorance of recycling channels.
Rare earths and metals … and expensive
Those that are in working order can be used by used buyers and avoid the complete manufacture of a new device. A saving for the user and for the planet’s resources: according to Ademe, “refurbished smartphones are on average 8 times more powerful than new”.
But even defective devices are a veritable gold mine … both figuratively and literally: together they contain a gigantic amount of rare metals.
As rare as they are strategic: These highly sought-after metals are almost all imported into sectors such as electronics, batteries, etc.
In his “France 2030” plan, Emmanuel Macron had proposed in the autumn to develop industrial recycling sectors to reduce this dependence on imports.
The measure appears, logically, in his graduate program, now eager to “green” his program further:
When we improve the circular economy, we improve our independence. We passed laws and we will intensify
Emmanuel Macron at the end of March in Charente-Maritime
Long before the presidential election between the two rounds, on March 31, he had “snatched” his idea of ”ecological planning” from Jean-Luc Mélenchon:
I assume this expression […]. Do not see this as a conversion on my part, but I am pragmatic: When the proposed methods seem good to me, you need to know how to customize them.
In this logic of “uniting ecology and economy”, the presidential candidate added that “ecology is a matter of sovereignty, local jobs and revolution of applications”.
Hence this idea of a “return bonus” applicable to mobile phones, tablets, but also to computers:
A bonus not yet quantified
This prize [permettra] to be less dependent on rare or critical materials and metals for our society
Emmanuel Macron’s campaign team
An ambitious proposal, but not quantified: The candidate’s team did not provide details on either the bonus amounts or the planned recovery channel. It could lean on the sector of restoring the professionals in the old appliances with the purchase of a new one, funded today by the eco-participation.
What can be recovered in a smartphone? Nothing is simple again: each unit weighs 100 to 200 grams and contains up to 70 different materials – including 30 to 50% plastic, which is almost impossible to recycle, and 10 to 20% glass and ceramics, virtually irreparable and without market value .
40 to 60% metals in a smartphone
But also more precious materials. It remains to identify and separate these 40 to 60% of the metals from each unit (gold, silver, palladium, aluminum, chrome, tin, nickel, etc.).
Twenty of them can be recycled with a high market value, especially in a context of global tensions: the Covid-19 pandemic again weakens trade with China when the conflict in Ukraine weighs on certain raw materials.
Recycling 50 million units, each containing 0.1 grams of a single precious metal, would make it possible to recycle … 5 tons! Or 50 million euros in market value for e.g. gold.
Such a return bonus can have a real impact on the supply of rare metals, and make it possible to produce less and at the same time recover better.
Provided that the ecological impact of the recycling itself is taken into account: As a Senate report reminds us, by the end of 2020, “after the use phase, the end of the equipment is also a source of pollution”.