South Koreans are among the world’s most frequent phone upgraders, buying about 15 million new mobile phones each year, according to a recent report by market research firm DigiEco.
One of the problems that create is the handling of all the discarded older phones.
To tackle the issue of electronics waste, or e-waste, the Seoul city government started a program called Eco City in 2009 to collect used electronics. It runs a waste handling facility called Seoul Resource Center in the northeast of the capital and employs elderly or low-income people to break them down and process the parts.
Eco City is unique in that it is an entirely government-funded and directed operation. In Tokyo, the municipal government invited private companies to set up recycling facilities, while China has struggled to deal with large amounts of e-waste both produced domestically and imported. Seoul’s Eco City says each discarded mobile phone has between 2,500 won and 4,000 won (about US$2.23-$3.50) worth of metals in it, including rare earth metals such as neodymium.
At intervals of six months or a year, companies can bid to purchase the waste that has been gathered and sorted by Eco City. Whatever can’t be sold or reused is incinerated.
Eco City Chief Executive Lee Dong-hyun explains that the program was conceived after identifying a way that e-waste could be useful.
“Our country lacks natural resources. We started this center after we realized that a lot of the kinds of things we need, like metals, were already in the country but were being thrown out,” he said.
Private recyclers also handle e-waste but generally just extract the most valuable parts from items and discard, or in some cases export, the rest.
Some say that in addition to handling e-waste with more care, it would also be helpful to change South Korea’s culture of frequently replacing electronics, so as to limit the amount of waste that is created in the first place.
“We buy new devices not because what we have actually needs to be replaced, but just because we want something newer, with a nicer design or some new features,” said Lee Won-young of the Korea Association of Electronics Environment, an industry group.