Partnerships with the private sector:
Wastes management

Marco Buletti

Marco Buletti, Swiss Federal Office for the Environment

Marco Buletti, PhD, a geologist, is Chair of the Mobile Phone Working Group of the MPPI. He works in the Swiss Federal Office for the Environment in the Waste Management and Raw Materials Division as Deputy Head of section.

Basel Convention / mobile phone producers

Managing mobile phone wastes

E-waste is a growing world problem as the global consumer goods revolution generates massive quantities of discarded computers and obsolete electronic equipment: 20-50 million tonnes each year, leaving behind lead, cadmium and mercury along with valuable metals among the wastes. The Swissinitiated Mobile Phone Partnership Initiative (MPPI) seeks ways to manage this waste stream in an environmentally sound manner, with the hope of applying the lessons perhaps to other obsolete consumer goods such as used lead-acid car batteries, computers or other waste electrical and electronic equipment.

The mobile phone partnership initiative (MPPI) is a pilot project, the first public-private working agreement in the framework of the Geneva-based Basel Convention on transboundary controls of hazardous wastes and their disposal. Our partners include manufacturers, telecom operators and refurbishers of mobile phones, recyclers, associations and NGOs as well as government representatives from economically developed, developing and transition countries.

The overall objective of this initiative is to ensure environmentally sound management of used and end-of-life mobile phones.

Furthermore, it aims to use the pilot project as a learning tool and a possible basis for other partnerships. Through this initiative it is also hoped to put the issue of waste electrical and electronic equipment on the international environmental political agenda.

Philippe Roch, then the director of the Swiss Federal Office for the Environment, launched the initiative as president of the Conference of Parties to the Basel Convention. The partnership was approved in December 2002 when 12 manufacturers signed a declaration entering into sustainable partnership with the Basel Convention to develop and promote the environmentally sound management of used and end-of-life mobile phones in cooperation with other stakeholders. In July 2005 three telecom operators also signed this declaration.

As a background to this partnership initiative, it was recognized that more and more mobile phones are being discarded after quite short use periods even though they are designed and built to last several years. Often these used and end-of-life mobile phones are discarded in the household waste stream ending in landfills. Disposal in landfills means valuable metals (such as copper, gold and platinum) are not recovered and recycled. In addition there are problematic materials in mobile phones (e.g. flame retardants) that can pose a threat to human health and the environment if not disposed or recycled in an environmental sound manner. Also, refurbishment can extend the life of mobile phones even though this puts refurbishers in competition with the original manufacturers. It has been recognized that state of the art repair and refurbishment is required. The issue of wastes from discarded mobile phones is therefore huge.

MPPI provides an opportunity for dialogue with 91 governments, repair and recycling industry, industrial associations and environmental organizations, manufacturers and telecom operators responsible for some 80% of the world's mobile phones.

The GSM Association, the international trade association for mobile network operators and suppliers, represents almost 700 operators in about 210 countries and territories, and its members provide services to over 2 billion customers worldwide, accounting for perhaps 80% of the world's mobile phones. The GSM Association reports that takeback operations can be found in more than 40 countries - all started as voluntary initiatives. But with so many handsets in circulation, the organizational problems can be huge.

Four years after the launch of the initiative the MPPI has produced several guidelines and now is moving to the stage where refurbishers and recyclers will test the guidelines on refurbishment and recycling In addition telecom operators and manufacturers agreed to test collection systems in selected developing countries and countries with economies in transition to see what works and what does not, so that the system can be improved or changed as necessary.

Another pillar of this public private partnership initiative is raising awareness of problems associated with used and end-of-life mobile phones and how to establish environmentally sound collection, refurbishment and recycling schemes. Through workshops and similar activities, MPPI is developing a strategy to reach retailers and the public, recognizing that no single formula can be applied across the board.

Setting up this program was definitely a learning process. Some NGOs came into the discussions with a very strong environmental agenda, while manufacturers and the commercial suppliers tended to have the business implications and interests uppermost in their minds, and some governments see legislation as the major tool for solving problems. Turning the MPPI into an effective and successful instrument of joint action presented us all with an opportunity to learn to answer those environmental concerns, appreciate the commercial realities and recognize that legislation may not always be the solution It is a learning process that continues within this Public Private Partnership.