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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.”
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Demobeat…smart energy grid.
Tom Sly, Google, leading PowerMeter biz dev. Grocery analogy…groceries with no pricing info…everything bundled, no idea how to improve on that. That’s how we buy power.
Powermeter. Mobile enabled, close to real time. Data is key to behavioral change. 5-15% reductions when have access. API open for 3rd parties. Power meter, direct to user. Also working with utilities and other device manufacturers. Data available. If we can get 50% of households to reduce consumption by 10%, it would me 8 million cars off the road, more reductions then total wind and solar generation now. I think Google is working with GE right now on the powermeter hardware.
Adrian Tuck, Tendril
Energy demand increasing, grid stressed. 2 principles. 1) Way to change is by giving conumers the tools, empower them, not utilities. 2) Humble to predict the killer apps of the smart grids. Eco saver app example. Don’t think they should be alone in developing. Open API (Yes, good plan Tendril, this will help you grow!).
Mobile app. Live. Instant view of consumption, price, cost. Nice visual. Open Mobile API too!
What took Tendril so long? Long process to aggregate data, tech challenges. Meter requirements, protocol for the. Regulatory environment needs to change. Decoupling is coming, seeding this model, not fighting it. Utilities must be incentivized. Yes, utilities will be key, government needs to incentivize AND punish those unwilling to cooperate. The carrot and the stick.
Robin Baker, AMEE
Crowd sourcing to collect consumption and carbon data. Product specific footprinting. Calculate C02 of everything on planet. Move orgs, individuals to a low carbon economy. Provide: Authority, Open access & scale, Independence, Interoperability. Anyone can access (pricing). Integrate policy, science, tech, & biz. Smart meter to UI carbon output. UK live demo.
Challenge of c02. Methodologies of each govt, area are different for carbon. AMEE wants to make the standard. $20 trillion dollar industry worldwide.
In conversations with Google and AMEE post (Tendril had a flight to catch) both companies see collaboration as central to both solving the climate problem and building business. This is hard for many traditionalist business mavens to understand. It’s the open source conundrum. In the end, the best products will win, why not just help those along and share in profits? Great DemoBeat panel, a nice break in the otherwise very techy oriented weekend (nothing wrong with that of course :).
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Everything in the past 9 months has been driven by the “down economy” theme, literally, everything. Spending, budgets, revenues, and now even words. Words aren’t cheap, so this is Demo 09 day 1, MakeMeSustainable style in bullet form. Apologies to companies that I don’t mention, there were a few interesting ones that I couldn’t cover because of work (demonstrator list here). Start, Demo 09.
Sunday night: sick in room with vicious fever and stomach flu.
Monday: Chris Shipley. Reset year, recession. No more large user growth, and then monetize. This year business plans that make sense. Venture is changing. Tightening LP’s, tightening purses on both sides seeking capital efficient companies.
Matt Marshall. DemoBeat for ongoing conversation. Smart grid conversation (yes!). Company demo’s I paid attention to.
Pixetell…webex on drugs.
CC Betty…smart email management, not a fan of the colors, like to product.
Zuora…monetize facebook applications…hell yes, someone has to make money in facebook!
Zipadi…take printed materials and put them online…love it, love the green component, love the demo, great guys too, hope they get funded.
eFormic…product specific co2 offsets. label with website and code. software embedded into company website. can choose project and see where project is. any product and service. provides branding and green PR. tight demo. still not sold on effectiveness of offsets.
blue buzz…blue tooth content delivery. uses hardware and software.
This evening, I am sick again with stomach flu. Not much use at the jam session. On to tomorrow.
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It’s difficult to continue hearing people argue with me that they don’t have any money to invest in energy efficiency even as they watch their 401k’s and stock portfolios, GM stock and financial ETF’s bite the dust. It remains simple: energy efficiency investments are the most lucrative, cash flow related investment you can make in the market today. They are a practically assured investment, returning cents on the dollar, provided we continue to use energy…which we will!
It’s no surprise to me that the biggest companies are investing significant resources into energy efficiency products. These are the same companies, who as LP’s (limited partners) of large venture firms are trying to back out of their funding agreements. Wal-Mart was one of a few companies which forged the path for energy efficiency. This June 2007 post shows how ahead of the curve they really were.
Now take a look at McDonalds. Environmental Leader reports McDonalds is rolling out energy efficiency measures in its stores worldwide this year, with energy savings estimated at 14%, or $1.5 billion. No small fry. And this initiative in addition to other environmental action on the fast-food giant’s plate, including fewer landfill visits, biodiesel trucks (pilot phase) and others.
The takeaway is simple. Use less energy, save more money, use that money elsewhere, watch your personal or business balance sheet improve. Oil is back up to $50 a barrel, and it will continue to rise along with energy prices in general. President elect Obama is pushing for energy efficiency measures together with large and small businesses alike, so why isn’t everyone?
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MMS will be soft-demoing our energy efficiency auditing software and drinking to the health of the planet!
While the “regular” economy is depressingly unpredictable these days, the new “green” economy is looking increasingly promising. Amidst the Green community, word is that green-collar jobs are on the rise to further the cause for a more sustainable NYC. Take a gander at our favorite eco-friendly non-profit group, Envirolution, and its growing progress and current projects by checking out its holiday fundraiser on Thursday at Inc Lounge. At the event, Envirolution, along with Make Me Sustainable, will unveil their latest and greatest project – the “Win-Win Campaign” – a youth-led small business energy and carbon efficiency campaign.
Click below for more story:
The hosts will be joined by reps from a bevy of other eco-friendly companies and non-profits, providing an excellent networking event for those looking to get more involved at any capacity. Or, just come out with friends for a few drinks and enjoy music from DJ K Black and a special performance by Ihsan Mummahad of Urban Go Green (who also performed at Envirolution’s Launch Party in May and was AMAZING). For those New Yorkers looking for new career opportunities AND ways to make a difference, it’s no doubt that checking out the Green market could be a sustainable move!
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One of the biggest challenges to increasing the level of renewable energy use in the United States is the fact that the most promising, nationally scalable energy technologies-solar and wind-are inherently unreliable. Solar panels obviously need sunlight to work, rendering them useless at night. Similarly, wind turbines are useless when the wind stops blowing. This poses a significant problem for the prospects of green energy, because an unreliable energy source cannot be used for baseload or peak power without somehow storing the energy.
Normal energy utilities use power plants for two purposes: As baseload and peak sources of energy. The cheapest, most fuel efficient plants run constantly, providing the minimal demand within an energy grid. At times of peak demand (such as weekday evenings), utilities turn on additional, backup plants (which are usually the older generation, as they cost more to run) in order to meet demand. Currently, renewable energy does not fill either of these roles. Instead, it is used primarily as a supplement, feeding energy into the grid when it’s producing it. However, this minor role for renewables means that it will remain largely a niche market, with reliable coal, natural gas, and nuclear power plants continuing to dominate the energy market. If renewable energy is ever going to become the dominant power source in the United States, it will have to be able to replace either baseload or peak power (or, preferably, both). In other words, renewables must be capable of producing a steady, reliable flow of electricity in order to actually replace fossil fuel and nuclear energy generation.
One potential solution to this problem has been the creation of large batteries, which would store energy when it is being generated and release it onto the grid when it is needed. While theoretically possible, batteries of this scale don’t exist, and adding batteries to the grid would likely tack on significant costs to renewable energy. While the government could potentially step in and subsidize these costs, developing and implementing a battery system would likely take years.
between one-third and one-half of yearly averaged wind power from a network of interconnected farms can actually be used as reliable, baseload electric power, the way coal is used now. For any given turbine, the wind’s not always blowing, but given a sufficiently high number of turbines, the wind’s always blowing somewhere. (Also, if you connect a bunch of distributed wind farms to a single point and then connect that point to, say, a faraway city, you can keep transmission losses to a minimum.)
If you build enough wind turbines and connect them all together in a national smart grid, which would move the energy to wherever it was needed, wind power could actually replace the baseload dirty energy generators. The electricity grid would have to be modernized, of course, but it’s already pretty clear what needs to be done for that to happen. Solar power could supplement the grid during the day, and the sunnier west could potentially provide peak power to the east coast during the evening (due to time zone differences). While this solution isn’t perfect, and some sort of battery system might have to be implemented in order to reliably generate green peaking power, it’s becoming easier to picture what a green energy system would look like in the United States.
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My name’s Ben Axelman, and I’m the newest member of MakeMeSustainable. I just graduated from Tufts and I’m interning at MMS as a research assistant, further investigating green/clean energy sector issues. I’ll be updating the blog pretty regularly now, and I hope you’ll find my posts interesting. Feel free to leave comments, and I’ll be sure to respond to them. Thanks for reading!