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Scheme gives new life to old mobile phones

The Solidarcomm envelope is available from all 8,000 post offices swissinfo.ch

Old and unwanted mobile phones are getting a new lease of life in the developing world, thanks to a Swiss initiative.

This content was published on February 23, 2004 - 20:49

The project is not just environmentally friendly – SFr5 ($4) per mobile is also being donated to charity.

The system, called “Solidarcomm”, has been in place since the end of last year and involves four partners: Idris Invest, the Swiss charities Terre des Hommes and Association Réalise, as well as the Swiss Post Office.

The original idea came from Idris Invest, a canton Vaud-based import and export mobile-phone company, which then contacted Terres des Hommes with its proposal.

Under the scheme – similar to systems already in place in Germany and Britain - Terres des Hommes receives SFr5 per phone, whatever its condition.

The phones, preferably with battery and charger, have to be handed in at one of Switzerland's 8,000 post offices.

The Post Office, which has agreed to sponsor the project, then sends the phones - in special envelopes - to workshops at Association Réalise, a Geneva-based organisation which helps the unemployed get back to work.

The handsets are sorted out, tested and repaired. Only those in a really bad condition end up as scrap.

The mobiles are then sent to Idris, which sells them in Asia or North Africa.

Everyone a winner

“It’s an initiative which is perfectly in line with the concept of durable development,” said Jean-Luc Pittet, secretary-general of Terre des Hommes in Switzerland.

Not only does the money from the phones go to help the charity realise aid projects in developing countries, but it also provides work for Association Réalise.

Furthermore, all the telephones which cannot be used are recycled properly. This is because they often contain toxic materials such as lead, mercury and arsenic.

The project has already proved successful: it has received more than 5,000 phones already, two-thirds of which were in good condition.

But the scheme has yet to turn a profit and Idris cannot say when it expects to see a return on its investment.

At the moment, the company is paying for the 500,000 special Solidarcomm envelopes, the SFr5 per mobile to Terre des Hommes, as well as for the hours put in by the workers at Association Réalise.

But the company remains optimistic since the mobile-phone market is expanding rapidly in the developing world.

1.5 million mobiles a year

Terres des Hommes believes that a lot of publicity is needed before the campaign can take off properly.

“We are going to target the public and private sector,” Pittet told swissinfo.

He added that the Geneva law courts and the city's lost and found office had already promised to recycle their phones via Solidarcomm.

“Philippe Roch, the head of the environment agency, has also promised to do the same. There is enormous potential in the civil service,” added Pittet.

Switzerland has about five million mobile-phone users and they change their handsets on average every eight to nine months. This means about 1.5 million are thrown away annually.

Idris says it would be satisfied with recycling 40,000 mobiles a year.

swissinfo, Marc-Andre Miserez

In brief

Switzerland has almost 5.7 million mobile-phone users, who change their phones on average every 8-9 months.

Each Swiss spends on average €1,485 ($1,900) a year on mobiles compared with €820 in the rest of Europe.

In Asia and North Africa, less than ten per cent of the population have a mobile phone.

Mobiles cost from €100 in Western countries but on the second-hand market cost €20-30.

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