By Joachim Bamrud, Mon Dec 17 00:00:00 GMT 2001

Mobile phone companies, especially those based in Europe or Japan, are increasingly focusing on environmental issues.

The trend is due to a combination of regulatory requirements already in place or coming up, recognition of its public relations value, idealism about the environment and studies that have shown that eco-friendly companies can save costs and become more efficient.

Not surprisingly, the mobile phone industry's growing efforts at environmentally friendly policies differ from country to country and from company to company.

"It's basically a split world, with one half doing a reasonably good job and the other half quite a way behind," says Neal Mawston, industry analyst at the wireless global practice of Strategy Analytics.

Countries leading the way are Japan, the United States and members of the 15-nation European Union (EU), according to Mawston.

The EU is scheduled to implement a Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) directive in 2005, which aims to reduce the volume of waste disposed without pre-treatment.

There are no updated estimates on how many mobile phones are recycled in Europe or globally. One recent pilot program in the UK supported by Ericsson collected an estimated 70,000 mobile phones for recycling, while another program in Sweden collected more than 80,000 phones. Matsushita (which produces Panasonic phones), Motorola and Nokia have also implemented "take-back" schemes in several countries.

Yet, analysts say collection and recycling continues to be the exception rather than the rule. "It's still very uncommon," Mawston says.

The EU estimates that 90 percent of all electric and electronic waste ends up in landfills or is incinerated without proper treatment.

The new directive comes as more consumers are likely to be replacing phones as a result of new technologies like GPRS and 3G. And that means more problems.

"As mobile phones mature in Europe, issues rise about recycling," says Mawston. "There will be more phones [and] recycling will be more of a problem."

Japan - the leading market in terms of 2G and 3G wireless web phones - is running out of landfill space, he points out.

The number of countries with regulations that mandate collections and recycling are set to grow from nine in June 2001 to 31 by 2006, according to an estimate by the International Association of Electronics Recyclers.

Innovative answers

The issue of recyclability has also become more current with the launch of several disposable phones. U.S.-based Dieceland Technologies has developed a phone that is no larger or thicker than the equivalent of various credit cards and uses metallic ink instead of wires.

A competing product, about the size of a deck of playing cards, has been developed by another U.S. company, Hop-On Wireless. (For more details on the disposable phones, Joachim Bamrud is an award-winning journalist with 17 years experience as a writer and editor in the United States, Europe and Latin America. Bamrud has worked for various print, broadcast and online media, including Latin Trade, Reuters and UPI.