Tossed asideâ€” what a waste
Cell phones are full of precious metals and reusable parts; the push is on to recycle them
By Wailin Wong | Chicago Tribune reporter
September 12, 2008
Pity that old cell phone languishing in a drawer. It’s missing out on a fascinating afterlife.
Most discarded phones in the U.S. are simply forgotten amid household clutter. A smaller number of handsets make it to a collection center for recycling or a reselling facility. For those phones, their fates can vary from being sold to consumers in developing countries to being melted down for metals like gold and copper.
But getting more consumers to think about their old phones the way they look at an empty soft drink can, as a product to be recycled, isn’t so easy.
According to industry estimates, nearly 200 million cell phones will be sold in the U.S. this year. A large number of these buyers are already wireless subscribers with handsets, so more than 100 million phones will be retired. If improperly dumped in a landfill, they can release toxic materials from their batteries, small fluorescent lights and other parts.
These handsets also represent a lost opportunity, because discarded phones often are still functional, and parts of non-working ones are reusable. Persuading consumers to recycle their phones is part of a larger “e-waste” problem that environmental activists, governments and companies are trying to address as they grapple with a tide of unwanted consumer electronics.
The Environmental Protection Agency estimates the U.S. cell phone recycling rate at 10 percent, a figure that’s been flat for the last couple of years. In contrast, 2006 data show that American households recycled 51.6 percent of their paper and 45.1 percent of their aluminum cans.
Despite industry-sponsored collection programs, “most consumers still do not know where or how they can recycle their cell phone,” said EPA spokeswoman Latisha Petteway. “Most people hang on to their old cell phones thinking they may use them again. â€¦ [But] the result is that many people end up with an unused cell phone that could be recycled sitting in a drawer.”
In the U.S., consumers tend to replace their handsets every 18 months or two years, partly because the industry offers upgrade incentives and also because cell phones have become fashion accessories that can quickly lose their cachet. The reality is that with a little refurbishing, many phones can last another few years beyond their initial use.
“The more important issue with e-waste is resource conservation,” said Jennifer Bemisderfer, a spokeswoman for the Consumer Electronics Association. “Electronics contain a lot of reusable, valuable raw materials that are a benefit to everyone.”
ReCellular Inc., a Michigan-based reseller and recycler of mobile phones, expects to process more than 6 million handsets this year, said Vice President Mike Newman. That’s double the 2007 amount, “but it’s nowhere near where it could be.”
ReCellular sends just under half of the handsets it receives to be recycled for materials. The others are resold in their current condition or passed on to refurbishing companies.
Discarded U.S. phones are often sold in overseas markets where consumers might not be able to afford a new handset. Colorado-based CollectiveGood auctions about 55 percent of the 8,000 to 10,000 phones it receives every month to refurbishers and resellers, some of which sell the used handsets abroad.
The chain of players is long and murky, and CollectiveGood President Seth Heine acknowledges that it’s a “challenge for us to find out where the phones go.” But he maintains that for the same price as a basic handset produced for developing markets by companies like Motorola Inc. and Nokia Corp., consumers in those countries can buy a used American cell phone with more-advanced features.
Those in the e-recycling business say some phones are diverted to smaller, overseas scrap operations with unsafe labor conditions and improper disposal practices. ReCellular gets “calls from people every day who want to buy our scrap,” Newman said, adding that high prices for such commodities as gold have prompted increased interest in electronic waste. “You can bet it’s someone who wants to send it over to China. But we’re in the business of reuse first.”
CollectiveGood sends its end-of-life handsets to Umicore, a Belgian company that reclaims metals from electronics. ReCellular ships its obsolete phones to Sims Recycling Solutions, an Australian conglomerate with facilities in West Chicago and Franklin Park.
The local Sims plants process about 200,000 pounds of cell phones every year. There are between four and six phones in a pound, and each pound can fetch $2-$3 in reclaimed precious metals at current prices. Still, cell phones make up a minute portion of the 35 million pounds of electronicsâ€”everything from TVs to bulky mainframe computersâ€”that the Chicago-area Sims facilities process annually.
Amanda Hale, Sims’ West Chicago-based vice president of marketing, even recalls a shipment of MRI machines that had to be dismantled with blowtorches.
At West Chicago, smaller electronics such as cell phones and computer monitors are fed through a shredder that reduces the devices into tangles of copper wire and paint-chip-size pieces of aluminum and steel. The metals are later blended into alloys and sold. Bulkier items go through a much larger shredder that chomps up electronics in three stages, resulting in the same colossal piles of metal bits.
Hale said awareness of electronic recycling needs to be higher. The company will run advertisements in advance of the digital TV transition in February, encouraging consumers who are getting rid of their analog sets to bring them in for safe disposal.
CollectiveGood lets people who donate phones choose a charity to receive proceeds from the recycled handset. There are other programs, such as Verizon Wireless’ HopeLine initiative, that use proceeds from the sale of refurbished handsets to provide phones and minutes to victims of domestic violence.
Heine of CollectiveGood also runs a program that pays consumers for their old phones.
“Our mission is to protect the environment,” he said. “You can recycle your phones for love or for money, and we have a little mousetrap for each of them.”