Greening academia: use and disposal of mobile phones among university students

Waste Manag. 2011 Jul;31(7):1617-34. doi: 10.1016/j.wasman.2011.01.031. Epub 2011 Mar 3.


Mobile phones have relatively short lifecycles and are rapidly seen as obsolete by many users within little over a year. However, the reusability of these devices as well as their material composition means that in terms of mass and volume, mobile phones represent the most valuable electronic products that are currently found in large numbers in waste streams. End-of-life mobile phones are a high value (from a reuse and resource perspective), high volume (quantity), low cost (residual monetary value) and transient (short lifecycle) electronic product. There are very large numbers of higher education (mainly university) students in the world--there are>2.4 million in the UK alone, 19 million in Europe and 18.2 million in the USA--and they often replace their mobile phones several times before graduation. Thus, because of the potentially significant environmental and economic impacts, a large scale survey of students at 5 UK universities was conducted to assess the behaviour of students with regard to their use and disposal of mobile phones. Additionally, a small scale trial mobile phone takeback service at one of the universities was carried out. The findings indicate that many students replace their phones at least once a year; replacing broken phones, getting upgrades from network operators, remaining "fashionable" and a desire to have a handset with a longer battery life are the main reasons for such rapid replacement. Almost 60% of replaced phones are not sent to reuse or recycling operations but are stockpiled by students mainly as spare/backup phones. Approximately 61% of students own an extra mobile phone with male students replacing their phones more often than females. In particular, the results highlight the potentially huge stockpile of mobile phones--and consequently valuable supplies of rare metals--being held by the public; we estimate that there are 3.7 million phones stockpiled by students in UK higher education alone (29.3 and 28.1 million stockpiled, respectively, for Europe and USA). Although many students are aware of UK mobile phone takeback services, only a moderate number have previously used the services. Students' recycling of other waste materials such as paper and glass did not have a significant impact on their disposal actions for their unwanted mobile phones, although students who often recycled these waste materials were also the most willing to participate in mobile phone takeback services. Monetary incentives such as cash payments and vouchers have the greatest influence over students' willingness to utilise takeback services, followed by convenience and ease of use of the services. The paper discusses these findings as well as the outcome of the trial mobile phone takeback. It is suggested that universities should partner with established takeback operators to conduct event-based mobile phone takeback services primarily targeting students. Lessons from mobile phone takeback applicable to takeback services for end-of-life gadgets similar to mobile phones are also discussed.

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Cell Phone / statistics & numerical data*
  • Data Collection
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Ownership / statistics & numerical data
  • Recycling / methods
  • Students*
  • Time Factors
  • United Kingdom
  • Universities*
  • Waste Management / methods
  • Young Adult