Medio ambiente

Rewards for recycling


What happens to old mobile phones when they reach the end of their useful lives? They might be recycled, though this seems to be the case for only a small portion (data is lacking but the recycling rate in the EU could be about 15%). They might be discarded with other waste and end up incinerated or in landfill. The most likely fate, however, might be ‘hibernation’ – old phones go into drawers and cupboards to be forgotten.

In one way this is good – the obsolete devices are not being thrown away. In another way it is bad. Hibernating phones represent an unused resource that if used properly could realise significant value and reduce the demand for new raw materials.

A forthcoming European Union Circular Electronics Initiative could help address this. The initiative is one of many actions listed in a new circular economy action plan, published by the European Commission on 11 March 2020. According to the plan, the Circular Electronics Initiative will be proposed by the end of 2021.

One particular focus of the initiative will be reward schemes to encourage consumers to drop off their old devices for reuse or recycling. The action plan notes that an “EU-wide take back scheme to return or sell back old mobile phones, tablets and chargers” will be considered. It is already possible in the EU to return old devices to retailers, but offering rewards could greatly increase the proportion of devices taken back.

For inspiration, the initiative could look to Spain, where a group of more than 60 municipalities and districts in the Valencia province has combined to manage its waste. A major aspect of the service is a pioneering scheme that rewards people for bringing certain categories of waste to designated sites.

Households in the region pay a levy for treatment of their waste. By bringing their waste to designated sites, residents reduce overall waste collection and processing costs. The region’s reward scheme, known as My Environmental Account (Mi Cuenta Ambiental), in effect, returns the savings to residents who recycle.

Residents receive a smartcard which is scanned whenever they recycle and credited with points depending on what they recycle and its volume. The most points are earned for responsibly bringing the most hazardous waste to recycling sites. Recycling of electronics is incentivised by higher points values than lower-value or already widely-recycled waste. Points can be exchanged for vouchers that can be used in participating local stores. The scheme has been a success and covers a large proportion of local residents.

An EU-funded research project, CIRC4Life, is demonstrating a similar approach as part of its overall work on circular economy models. The project, which runs until April 2021, is testing a reward scheme for depositing of old tablet computers and other electronics into ‘smart bins’ in the town of Getxo, near Bilbao. The project has already carried out a survey which found that rewards were not necessarily a major incentive for people to drop off used electronics, but easy access to collection points was a significant factor. The project will provide evidence for the European Commission to consider when it prepares the Circular Electronics Initiative.