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Originally posted on Telephony Online.
Cell phone recycling off to slow start
Discarded mobile phones generate huge amounts of waste, but recycling programs aren’t yet catching on with consumers
When a mobile phone reaches its end of life or, more likely, a consumer opts to upgrade, the three most common places for it to end up are a landfill, an incinerator or the consumer’s desk drawer. In the United States alone, Americans discard upwards of 130 million cell phones annually, less than 5% of which are recycled. That adds up to nearly 65,000 tons of waste every year, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). It is this massive amount of waste that is attracting the most attention from handset makers and carriers in their efforts to go green, but these efforts are still failing to inspire consumers in any significant numbers.
Recycling initiatives are popping up all over the world, including everything from a campaign to use recycling to save koalas in Australia to a telco-sponsored campaign in India and several charity-driven initiatives in the US. Handset vendors make it easy by sending envelopes with prepaid stamps directly to consumers’ doors, and some carriers even promise money – either to a charity or to the consumer – in return for recycled handsets. Even with these initiatives, however, Nokia’s own studies find that only about 3% of consumers are recycling their handsets today. And, they still cite a lack of awareness as the main reason why.
“That is the elephant in the room,” said David Delcourt, chief operating officer of green community site MakeMeSustainable.com. “With all the electronics we have, we have a poor recycling system for electronics.”
In Delcourt’s opinion, the mobile phone recycling process will remain challenged until the day when a consumer can toss their mobile phone directly in the recycling bin. It’s important to make it easy enough to get consumers on board because mobile phones contain toxic chemicals and components that pollute the air and soil when dumped in landfill or burnt in an incinerator. Further, a lot of recycling facilities are in developing countries where they strip the electronics down and send toxic waste directly into the ground stream. There is legitimate recycling going on too, Delcourt said, but not enough of it, considering how easy it is to do and how big an impact it can have.
“The best way for someone to minimize their footprint is to re-use and recycle their phone,” he said. “The phone’s manufacturing impact has already been spent, the waste will be zero, and you’re avoiding purchasing a new phone that comes with its own footprint. There are companies that also pay you for your old phone, refurbish them and resell them in other countries. Sent in bulk, this likely still achieves a smaller footprint with transportation costs than manufacturing new phones.”
ReCellular is one company that accepts old mobile phones for refurbishing. The electronics sustainability firm collects nearly 25,000 old handsets every day, 70% of which are still fully functional. It then provides the phones to its partners, including AT&T, Best Buy and Page Plus, to sell as refurbished, discounted devices. ReCellular collected more than 5.5 million devices in 2008, about 50% of the total devices recycled in the year, according to vice president Mike Newman. He estimated that closer to 10% of phones retired today, totaling about 14 million, are being recycled. Even so, the average consumer likely has two to three phones sitting around the house.
“There could be as many as one billion sitting in desks,” he said. “[Consumers] know they have value, but they aren’t spending the time or effort to seek out a recycling program.”
According to the CTIA, knowledge of mobile phone recycling programs is beginning to grow even if action is not. Its recent survey of 1,000 subscribers around the country found that 84% were aware that the mobile phone is a recyclable product and 69% were aware of programs to actually do the recycling. A significantly lower percentage was taking advantage of the programs, said John Walls, vice president of public affairs at CTIA, but awareness is rising.
“That is the challenge that any electronic device has,” Walls said. “Two-thirds of Americans know they can recycle their cell phones. Now we have to get over the hump of having them doing something about it instead of congregate in desk stands. It’s right there for them to do. It’s as simple as going into any store.”
WORLDWIDE RECYCLING PROGRAMS
CTIA promotes its own recycling program through a nationwide campaign, ‘Wireless…The New Recyclable,’ launched in 2003. The outreach campaign includes an in-store phone take-back program that lets consumers bring in old handsets and accessories to carrier retail outlets for recycling. Because the carrier owns the relationship with the consumer as well as the point of sale, this is one area where they can contribute as much – if not more – than the handset makers.
Most of the carriers are getting involved too, most recently including Cricket Communication’s recently launched handset recycling program in partnership with ReCellular. Other carriers, including AT&T with its Cell Phones for Soldiers initiative, and Verizon Wireless’ HopeLine phone recycling program, encourage consumers to donate their functional phones for reuse. VZW refurbishes phones for victims of domestic abuse, while AT&T recycles used cell phones and uses the proceeds to buy free phone cards for US troops. The carrier said it has recycled more than 2.5 million devices in the past year.
These programs complement the global initiatives of the top five handset manufacturers. Nokia provides phone take-back points in 85 countries, and LG’s programs span 45 countries as of 2007. Motorola, too, provides a take-back program in 12 countries where it gives out prepaid return envelops, also available online. Similarly, LG’s Text-to-Recycle program lets consumers send a text message to a shortcode, which then prompts them for their physical address. LG will send a prepaid mailer directly to the consumer’s door for them to send in old phones, packaging and accessories. All the handset makers accept phones and accessories from any of their competitors as well.
While carriers and handset makers are trying to attract more interest in their handset recycling programs, regulatory pressure may be the biggest driver going forward. The government’s EPA is working with AT&T, Best Buy, LG, Verizon Wireless and others to increase their outreach about their existing recycling programs, educate the public on how to recycle and the benefits of doing so and work with communities on cell phone collection drives and events.
The EPA’s Plug-In To eCycling program is voluntary today, but as the number of consumer electronics devices continues to proliferate, there is mounting pressure on state and federal governments to develop a national strategy to address the waste, according to Evan Haines, an ICF International consultant for EnergyStar’s electronics programs. California was the first to launch a mandatory statewide recycling program in 2006, prohibiting consumers from throwing away phones and requiring handset makers to have their own recycling program in place. Other states have yet to take it this far, but as awareness continues to spread and green becomes top of mind, it could be the next logical step.
“Mobile phones are a huge market, so even if something on the per-device basis is not that big, when you multiple it out to the whole market, there is a huge opportunity for effecting change,” Haines said. “If manufacturers are able to commit and put into place take-back programs, there is a chance to do more than they already are trying to do.”