What happens when you recycle your phone? Doing the same inside the UK’s largest facility
In a study conducted last year, it was revealed that 1 billion handsets were thrown around the world in Sky News visits a recycling facility that aims to ensure that no device is lost.
Disconnect the main flex cable when the time comes.
Other than being a little boy named Tom, I never felt like I had any kind of mission: impossible credentials until I wore Safety Google and gave a screwdriver and plastic scalpel at britain’s largest phone recycling factory.
Fixing the screen on a Samsung handset isn’t the same as cutting wires on an atomic bomb, but for someone whose DIY experience doesn’t go far beyond bringing LEGO back together, it was quite thrilling.
After already using the screwdriver at least 18 times to penetrate the device’s complex internal components, the next step was to remove the flex cable mentioned above.
These are the things that connect some of the phone’s key features, such as a touchscreen, to the motherboard — and this phone needed a new one.
It was a relatively basic task, although not a task I didn’t trust enough to perform on a real customer’s device.
The time it took me to remove these screws, the technician sitting in front of me probably fixed some of the more than 900 devices processed at The Ingram Micro Lifecycle Hub in Norwich every day.
The 34-year-old centre has a large floor to house 20 tennis courts and employs around 800 employees.
There are many highly trained technicians, who are stationed at stations with dedicated devices for everything from resetting the phone’s broken camera system to replacing all these important flex cables.
‘Aimed’ to recycle phone
Kevin Coleman, who was the facility’s fourth employee in 1989 and is now one of its most senior leaders, says there are “hundreds of technical tasks” going on all the time.
“The purpose of this facility is to industrialize high-volume processing of tech devices,” he says.
“Mainly mobile, but also wearable, tablets, earbuds and laptops.
I even saw the Nintendo Switch Games console at a station — and it wasn’t for the crew to hide in a cheeky race on Mario Kart between jobs.
Of course, phones are focused — and their range alone is quite unusual.
Shelves and trolleys filled with iPhones, Samsung Galaxys and Google Pixels are of all colors and sizes. Destroyed or broken in its own way. Each technician is trained to handle whoever can come to them.
‘Old phones should never go to landfills’
They end up with Ingram workers via Virgin Media O2’s recycle scheme, which allows people to submit their phones for repair or recycling, regardless of the network.
Last year he paid 36 million pounds to people selling his phones and many are choosing to buy secondhand.
The cost of living crisis is one of the reasons why consumers have increased acceptance for refurbished devices, says Gina Matonno, who works on network sustainable initiatives.
It helps that many phones passing through this facility look as good as new — and if they’re too old or just not saleable, there’s probably still useful parts inside it.
“Customers who are sending us broken phones don’t always realize they’re worth anything even if we can’t sell them.
“We can always reuse certain parts, such as metals or batteries — they should never go to the landfill.
A large number of phones are going to be lost.
An estimated 20 billion phones were dumped around the world last year, but less than <>% of e-waste is recycled and it becomes part of Motono’s favorite ‘circular economy’.
Millions of unused electronics are believed to be sitting in the drawers and cupboards of people in the UK.
In a study conducted last year, it was found that the value of spare smartphones alone is estimated to be one billion pounds.
To make the most of everything that ends up at the Norwich facility, new recruits pass through its classroom-like training centre. Given the nature of the tech world, veterans need to come back regularly as new handsets are released.
They are taught how to separate phones and put them together again, just like I had to try — albeit with the help of an engineering sage like Jedi with me and a detailed set of instructions.
Hot wires and phone freezers
Like some sort of future city for borrowers, these phones may be small, but the interiors are filled with a fairly incredible amount of component parts.
The screen alone consists of a display module inside the device, an LCD or OLED panel, and a sheet of glass that you can potentially tap and swipe hundreds or thousands of times a day. The degree of damage, whether they’re minor scratches or complete breakdowns, determines how multistage screen repair work can be.
I saw a woman pull a glass glass out of the display using a hot wire, which looked like Michelin could cut star chef cheese.
Another woman was taking care of the broken curved screen, which first needs to be frozen in a very low-temperature frozen oven to separate the glass from the display.
This explains how acceptable and complex these technicians should be. Just don’t ask them about foldable phones, they’re still working on how to fix these notoriously fragile phones.
The fact that hundreds of processes are carried out daily in this factory alone, adding four million annually, reflects the tremendous speed at which these technicians work.
It’s not that they fail to get care and attention, even guests like me wear expert protective clothing that prevents me from transferring any electrostatic discharge to devices — potentially destroying the repair process.
They also get help from one of my favourite parts of the entire facility.
A network of pipes under the roof replaces alternate parts, packed inside cylinder containers, reaching each workstation as needed, such as a highly efficient Santa’s workshop.
I could hear the satisfying “Woosh” as they flew for hours.
Final Factory Reset
And the work does not stop there, erasing data is also an important part of the work. After all, you definitely don’t want those WhatsApp and photos to be viewed by anyone else.
Coleman explains: “Technicians do repairs, but also documents.
”We’re approved by big manufacturers like Apple and Samsung, which gives us access to the parts we need, but also software tools to make sure there’s no data on the device.”
A factory reset in the real sense.
As was evident during my visit, this facility is always busy. But just as Santa’s workshop will begin in December, it can be expected that Apple will play with a lot of older phones when this year’s iPhone lineup is unveiled in September.
Coleman confidently predicts that his team will take over the iPhone 15 within a few weeks of release, something some people are obsessed with that they always have the next best thing to do.
The idea of an annual upgrade is likely becoming increasingly alien to most of us, given that new releases have long been repeated and felt unimpressive. No doubt Tim Cook is looking forward to telling us about “Apple’s fastest iPhone ever,” but one imagines your old phone will still cycle through funny TikTok videos.
It should be noted that manufacturers like Apple and Samsung clearly know how long we plan to keep our phones, as now both allow British consumers to order their own self-repair kits if they feel confident enough to try.
Still, if you want a new phone next month, it’s not for anyone to tell you it would be a waste of money.
Just remember that you probably don’t have to waste the old one.