Do You REALLY Need That New Mobile Phone?

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The new iPhone is much like the previous model, but you can also get Android "Gingerbread," Android "Honeycomb," or Windows Phone 7.5 "Mango," with Google-Samsung's "Ice Cream Sandwich" in Hong Kong this week. But living on desserts isn't ideal for your health.

Yet, with a mobile phone ownership rate of 160% or so, many Hong Kongers own more than one mobile phone. Since few humans can conduct multiple conversations simultaneously, it's clear that many of these phones are more fashion-accessory than communication device. Who cares about their OS or even if they have SIM cards--they're essentially bling-bling.

Accessorize how you please (and handset-manufacturers are grateful for the business), but realize that handsets contain various that are valuable, toxic, or both. Recently, "rare earth elements" (unique mineral-substances used in industrial production) have assumed geo-political importance--they're part of the worldwide supply chain. You may never have heard of indium, but it's a key ingredient in LCD screens.

This situation has helped recycling of electronic waste (e-waste) an essential component of national policy rather than a "green" thing-to-do. The New York Times reported in October 2010 that "problems with Chinese supplies of rare earths have sent Japanese traders and companies in search of alternative sources."

The shortage of these materials drove the isolated northern Japanese town of Kosaka to re-open its mining industry, which started declining in the 1970s. But now, instead of smelting ore, they're engaged in "urban mining": recycling metals and minerals from disused electronics like cellphones and computers.

"We've literally discovered gold in cellphones," said politician Tetsuzo Fuyushiba after visiting Kosaka's recycling plant, according to the New York Times article. And of course, China has many metallurgical companies handling both raw material and recycling, the largest being Hang Seng-listed China Metal Recycling (Holdings) Limited.

So before you bite into your credit card because you've just GOT to have the latest phone, realize that those milligrams of rare earth in the device make it more than just a cartoon-character dongle. Consider how many mobile phones you actually need. And if one breaks, do us all a favor and recycle it.

This story, "Do You REALLY Need That New Mobile Phone?" was originally published by Computerworld Hong Kong.

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