Identifying Drivers and Hindrances to Smartphones Disposal: A Study of User Behaviour in the UAE
Gayle Patrao, Alumna, Middlesex University Dubai
Ajit Karnik, Professor of Economics, Middlesex University Dubai
At a time when the UAE is hosting COP28, this study makes an important contribution towards understanding the factors that contribute to environmental degradation. Specifically, we focus on the huge generation of e-waste due to the negligent disposal of mobile phones. The use of mobile phones is ubiquitous around the world. Alongside the usage of mobile phones has been the rapid growth of related electronic waste, mainly aided by the very low rates of recycling of used phones.
It is also important to note that smartphones disposed of in a careless manner not only have adverse environmental and human consequences but also represent economic waste in the sense of precious salvageable components being lost. Smartphones have a very high recycling potential since “15% of Glasses and Ceramics, 40% of Plastics, and 15% of Copper are recyclable”.i According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, “For every million cell phones we recycle, 35 thousand pounds of copper, 772 pounds of silver, 75 pounds of gold and 33 pounds of palladium can be recovered.”ii If all the used smartphones, which are “hibernating” in households in the European Union were to be collected and recycled, this would amount to almost 700 million devices and “approximately 14,920 tonnes of gold, silver, copper, palladium, cobalt and lithium with a value of over €1 billion could be recovered”.iii
This study investigates the reasons behind the low rates of recycling of mobile phones in the United Arab Emirates, one of the heaviest users of mobile phones and one with very high e- waste generation. The study also has an important practical dimension in view of the policy initiative of the government in moving towards a circular economy.
Our research is located in the UAE. We carried out primary data collection to elicit information about consumers' awareness regarding e-waste and recycling as well as opinions and preferences regarding the usage and disposal of their used phones. A questionnaire-based survey was chosen as the data collection method because it is one of the primary methods used for descriptive research.
An important step toward carrying out statistical analysis is whether the questionnaire that has been used to elicit information from respondents allows us to measure and create variables or factors that may be used in the analysis. The questionnaire was created to measure the attitudes, concerns, barriers, and incentives towards the disposal of used phones. In this context, the validity of the questionnaire needs to be examined which was done using Exploratory Factor Analysis (EFA). Our EFA exercise allowed us to identify the following constructs:
- ENVIRON: this construct relates to environmental awareness and beliefs
- ECONOMIC: the items covered under this construct look at elements that would encourage the users to recycle their phones
- BARRIERS: this construct looks at the reasons why users do not reuse or recycle their phones
- LOGISTICS: Reverse logistics infrastructure has been found to be an important external factor that motivates responsible disposal of smartphones. This factor will include ease of collection points for returning used smartphones.
Logistic Models and Multinomial logistic models have been employed to study phone disposal behaviour using the constructs listed above as explanatory factors.
Our estimation exercise from the logistic model shows that:
- Increase in environmental awareness (ENVIRON) increases the odds in favour of responsible disposal.
- The factor ECONOMIC, related to economic incentives for promoting responsible behaviour, does not seem to be significant
- The coefficient of BARRIERS is negative and significant indicating that the odds of responsible phone disposal decrease with the rise in BARRIERS
- The coefficient of LOGISTICS is negative but not significant
Our exercises with multinomial logistic model reinforce the results obtained with the logistic model.
Our results show some promising avenues for improving the rate of recycling phones in the UAE and in other societies as well. Enhancing awareness is clearly important in the effort to recycle used phones and, possibly, reduce e-waste in general. Governments at various levels but especially at local levels, need to develop community awareness and inculcate responsible behaviour in schools.
Barriers to recycling can be separated into internal or personal barriers, and external barriers related to the infrastructure of recycling. We have found that personal barriers play a significant role in hindering recycling, and these are likely to be difficult to overcome. However, the barriers related to recycling infrastructure can be overcome by enlisting retailers and/or manufacturers to facilitate recycling. This can be done by making available convenient locations to drop off used phones and arrange pick-up service for such phones.
Our survey results as well as findings from the literature tell us that personal barriers, such as privacy issues and attachment to their phones, prevent users from recycling their phones. Evidence from the literature suggests that economic incentives may help overcome this reluctance to recycle.
We believe that our research has helped improve our understanding of the disposal behaviour of phones users in the UAE. However, more research is required to understand the precise barriers that inhibit this behaviour and how users could be encouraged to be more responsible for the disposal of their phones.
Published in Sage Open, September 2023. The article is open access and available at: https://doi.org/10.1177/21582440231196757
i Noman, R. and Amin, S. (2017) Characteristics of cellphones reverse logistics in Canada. Journal of Remanufacturing, 7, 2-3, pp.181-198.
ii US EPA (Undated) Electronics Donation and Recycling https://www.epa.gov/recycle/electronics-donation-and-
recycling. [Accessed 1 July 2021]
iii European Economic and Social Committee (2019) Identifying The Impact Of The Circular Economy On The Fast Moving Consumer Goods Industry: Opportunities And Challenges For Businesses, Workers And Consumers – Mobile Phones As An Example. European Economic and Social Committee, pp.1-60. Doi: 10.2864/775626