Dear EarthTalk: What happens to my old cell phone after I upgrade? Do the stores really recycle them or give them to the poor, or are they just ending up in landfills? Where can I take mine to ensure that it is dealt with properly?—Paul G., Reno Nevada
EarthTalk: As cell phones proliferate they are giving computers and monitors some competition for the dubious distinction as the largest contributor to the world’s growing e-waste problem. Indeed, toxin-laden electronics are clogging landfills and polluting air and groundwater supplies from coast to coast.
The average North American gets a new cell phone every eighteen to twenty-four months, making old phones—many which contain hazardous materials like lead, mercury, cadmium, brominated flame retardants, and arsenic—the fastest growing type of manufactured garbage in the nation. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Americans discard 125 million phones each year, creating 65,000 tons of waste.
Luckily, a new breed of electronics recyclers is stepping in to help. Call2Recycle, a nonprofit organization, offers consumers and retailers in the U.S. and Canada simple ways to recycle old phones. Consumers can enter their zip code on the group’s website and be directed to a drop box in their area. Most major electronics retailers, from Radio Shack to Office Depot, participate in the program and offer Call2Recycle drop-boxes in their stores. Call2Recycle recovers the phones and sells them back to manufacturers, which either refurbish and resell them or recycle their parts for use in making new products.
The CollectiveGood organization takes used cell phones, refurbishes them, and then re-sells them to distributors and carriers for use primarily in developing countries, providing affordable communications to poorer citizens while helping to “bridge the digital divide.” They also recycle all non-functioning batteries through a partnership with the Rechargeable Battery Recycling Corporation. When you donate your phone to CollectiveGood you can direct the profits from the sales to a charity of your choice.
Another player is ReCellular, which manages the in-store collection programs for Bell Mobility, Sprint PCS, T-Mobile, Best Buy, and Verizon. The company also maintains partnerships with Easter Seals, the March of Dimes, Goodwill Industries, and other nonprofits that undertake cell phone collection drives as a way of funding their charitable work. According to ReCellular vice-president Mike Newman, the company is trying to change attitudes about used cell phones, to get consumers to “automatically think of recycling cell phones just like they currently do with paper, plastic, or glass.”
Neither the U.S. or Canada mandates electronics recycling of any kind at the federal level, but a few states and provinces are getting into the act at their own initiative. California recently passed the first cell phone recycling law in North America. As of July 1, 2006, electronics retailers doing business there must have a cell phone recycling system in place in order to legally sell their products, whether online or in-store. Other U.S. states considering similar legislation include Illinois, Mississippi, New Jersey, New York, Vermont, and Virginia, while the Canadian provinces of British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, and New Brunswick are likely to jump on the mandatory cell phone recycling bandwagon soon.