A study last year revealed the worth of smartphones in our drawers was £1bn, while five billion handsets were thrown away worldwide in 2022. Sky News visits a recycling facility that aims to make sure no device goes to waste.
“When the time comes, disconnect the main flex cable.”
Fixing the screen on a Samsung handset isn’t quite cutting wires on a nuclear bomb, admittedly, but for someone whose DIY experience doesn’t go far beyond putting toppled Lego back together, it was quite the thrill.
Having already used a screwdriver no fewer than 18 times to get into the device’s complex interior components, the next step was removing that aforementioned flex cable.
These are what connect up some of the phone’s most important features, like the touchscreen, to the motherboard – and this phone needed a new one.
It was a relatively basic task, though not one I was trusted with enough to perform on a real customer’s device.
The 34-year-old facility, with a floor big enough to hold 20 tennis courts, has around 800 employees.
Many are highly-trained technicians, deployed at stations with dedicated equipment for everything from realigning a phone’s broken camera system to replacing those all-important flex cables.
Kevin Coleman, the facility’s fourth employee back in 1989 and now one of its most senior leaders, says there are “hundreds of technical functions” going on at all times.
“The facility is purpose built to industrialise high-volume processing of tech devices,” he says.
“Predominantly mobile, but also wearables, tablets, earbuds, and laptops.”
Of course, phones are the focus – and the range of those alone is quite extraordinary.
Last year, it paid out £36m to people who sold their phones – and plenty are choosing to buy second-hand.
Gina Mutonono, who works on the network’s sustainability initiatives, said the cost of living crisis was one of the reasons there was a “growing acceptance from customers for refurbished devices”.
It helps that many of the phones that go through the facility come out looking good as new – and if they’re too old or just not sellable, there are likely still useful parts within.
“Consumers who are sending us smashed phones don’t always realise even if we cannot sell them, that they’re still worth something,” says Mutonono.
“We can always reuse some parts, like metals or batteries – they should never go to landfill.”
Five billion phones are estimated to have been thrown away worldwide last year, but less than 20% of e-waste is recycled and ends up part of Mutonono’s cherished “circular economy”.
There are also thought to be tens of millions of unused electronics sitting in Britons’ drawers and cupboards.
To make the most of everything that ends up at the Norwich facility, new recruits go through its classroom-like training centre. Given the nature of the tech world, veterans need to return regularly as new handsets are released.
They’re taught how to disassemble phones and put them back together, just as I got to try – albeit with the help of a Jedi-like engineering sage at my side and a detailed set of instructions.
Resembling some kind of futuristic city for Borrowers, these phones might be small, but the interiors are packed with quite incredible amounts of component parts.
The screen alone is made up of a display module inside the device, the LCD or OLED panel, and a sheet of glass you likely tap and swipe hundreds or thousands of times a day. The degree of damage, whether it’s minor scratches or a complete smash, determines just how multistaged a screen repair job might be.
I watched on completely transfixed as a woman removed the pane of glass from a display using a hot wire, which looked like the way a pretentious Michelin-starred chef might slice cheese.
Another lady was looking after a broken curved screen, which first needs to be frozen in a super low temperature freezing oven to separate the glass from the display.
The fact that hundreds are processed at this factory alone each day, adding up to four million a year, reflects the great speed at which these technicians work.
Not that they skimp on care and attention, hammered home by the fact even visitors like myself had to dress up in specialist protective gear that prevents me from passing any electrostatic discharge on to the devices – potentially ruining the repair process.
They’re also helped by one of my favourite parts of the entire facility.
A web of pipes under the ceiling funnels replacement parts, packed inside cylindrical containers, to each work station as needed, like a hyperefficient Santa’s workshop.
I could have listened to the satisfying “woosh” as they take off for hours.
Coleman explains: “The technicians do the repair, but also the documentation.
“We’re approved by the major manufacturers, like Apple and Samsung, which gives us access to parts we need, but also the software tools to make 100% sure there’s no data on the device.”
Coleman confidently predicts his team will be handling traded-in iPhone 15s within weeks of release, such are some people’s obsession with always having the next best thing.
The idea of an annual upgrade is likely becoming increasingly alien to most of us, given how iterative and uninspiring new releases have long felt. Tim Cook is no doubt looking forward to telling us about “the fastest iPhone Apple has ever made”, but one imagines your old one will still cycle through funny TikTok videos just fine.
Still, if you do fancy a new phone next month, it’s not for anyone to tell you it would be a waste of money.
Just remember you probably don’t have to let the old one go to waste.
Source: Sky Technology