Philip Johnston: Mobile phones pose a potential threat to us all

Electronic gadgets are likely to be high on Christmas lists this year, none more so than the latest mobile phones. With the newest devices, HD-quality video calling is a reality, internet access expected and there are thousands of downloadable applications designed to make our lives easier.

For the environment, though, there is a potential downside to all this technological advancement. Local authorities are getting smarter about recycling but the really harmful, often hidden, waste is electronic goods, including mobile phones. It potentially presents as big an environmental challenge as any oil spill if not disposed of properly.

There are an estimated 3.3 billion mobiles on the planet, with half the world's population estimated to be mobile phone-owners. The market is growing at 8 per cent a year and with an average shelf life per phone of just 18 months, that is an awful lot of redundant phones in the future, each one a potential environmental menace.

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Phones contain a lot of potentially harmful substances, including major concentrations of toxic heavy metals. When land is filled, over time these metals will seep out into the water table and the food chain, potentially causing serious health problems. Then there is the environmental damage done by new mining operations to replace these lost resources.

Dealt with properly, though, this waste does not have to be a problem. Advances in recycling technologies mean 100 per cent of a mobile phone is recoverable. Parts that can't be reused can be recycled into everything from ski bindings to traffic cones.

EU legislation has put responsibility for eco-friendly disposal back in the hands of manufacturers, but at the end of the day it is up to individuals to make a conscious decision to dispose of their phone in a responsible way.

If a new phone is on your wish-list for Santa, think carefully about what happens to the old one.

• Philip Johnston is managing director of S3 Interactive, a mobile phone recycling firm