Last year consumers got behind recycling. They are no longer being pushed by government or big business. This time the call for change is coming from individuals themselves.

Banishing plastic bags and recycling tin cans and milk bottles is only a small part of the deal. There are still items we think of as throw-away that can be recycled. Mobile phones are a case in point.

Does an image of a discarded Nokia 3310 gathering dust in your bedside drawer spring to mind? Or is a 6300 mouldering under the lounge couch?

Almost all of us are guilty of answering ‘yes’ to the above. But we can do something about it – and help the environment too.

The New Zealand Telecommunications Forum (TCF) officially launched its e-waste recycling programme, Re:Mobile, in 2014. The scheme existed before this – in fact, it’s been around since 2008, but in another guise. The earlier programme raised money for Auckland’s Starship Children’s Hospital.

In 2016, the TCF partnered with Sustainable Coastlines, a charity that helps look after New Zealand’s waterways.

Geoff Thorn, CEO of the TCF, says Re:Mobile kicked off at a time when the popularity of mobile phones was sky-rocketing. “We knew they were ending up in landfill, and we, as an industry, felt we could do something about that.”

Thorn emphasises that these discarded devices often have valuable components, such as gold or lithium-ion batteries, the latter of which raises safety issues if haphazardly discarded. The proceeds from recycling these phones can now go to Sustainable Coastlines, but only if the phones are disposed of properly.

Thorn explains: “We have an agreement with [Auckland phone recycler] SwapKit, which pays us for the phones it’s able to refurbish. We then pass this money on directly to Sustainable Coastlines. The industry doesn’t keep any of the funds.”

Thorn says about 90 percent of mobiles are reused, which can include being used to provide parts for other phones.

New Zealand is well known for its clean green image, but Camden Howitt, co-founder of Sustainable Coastlines, says that despite having the opportunity to be a world leader in the environmental space, we are simply not there yet.

Geoff Thorn, CEO of the TCF

Camden Howitt, co-founder of Sustainable Coastlines

“This clean, pure, green image really is just that – an image.”  

Both Thorn and Howitt agree that the major obstacle to people jumping on board with Re:Mobile is lack of awareness. “It’s about knowing that the scheme exists, realising that your device could have another life, or have value that could do some good,” says Howitt.

“The fact that someone would be willing to throw their mobile into a landfill is symptomatic of the fact that we don’t value the resources that go into the products that we use,” adds Howitt, touching on the need for greater consumer appreciation of so-called disposable products.

However, Sustainable Coastlines is making significant inroads. The charity now runs over 700 well-attended events and educational activities every year. And, thanks to

programmes like Re:Mobile, is making real progress in generating awareness for the need to respect our waterways and consider the impact we are having on our environment.

Since Re:Mobile began, it has raised over $2.5 million for New Zealand charities. More recently, Re:Mobile has raised $100,000 for Sustainable Coastlines, which, in turn, has resulted in more than 10,000 trees being planted beside our waterways. Howitt sees this as a win-win. “It’s good in the sense that consumers are contributing to sustainability and these materials aren’t going to waste.”

And it may be that, in terms of e-waste, mobiles are just the tip of the iceberg.

“As mobile phones mature and become increasingly essential to our daily lives, people are starting to place greater value on them and hold on to them for longer,” says Thorn.

It’s likely that another form of e-waste, modems and routers, is going to be the next big ticket resource.

Thorn says this is very much in the TCF’s sights. “We’re looking at this right now. Every time somebody changes their broadband access technology – and some people are doing it two or three times – they get a new modem. Everybody I talk to says they have two or three modems under the bed.”

But this presents a new challenge: “The difference is that collecting and recycling these actually incurs a cost,” says Thorn. “The difference between mobiles and modems is the ability to refurbish a phone and get a return on it.”

In the meantime, Thorn says they are still trying to get those old Nokias from out of drawers and back of cupboards and into the Re:Mobile recycling programme.

World Environment Day, on June 5, will see a huge push for the recycling scheme, and with over 1200 collection points being set up across the country, and freepost envelopes available, it’s going to be hard to claim ignorance for much longer.