July 2012

Discarded Cellphones Proliferate

Discarded Cellphones Proliferate

By: Cheryl Lofrano-Zaske, Call2Recycle®

Proper disposal of wireless devices and the rechargeable batteries that power them is critical.

The population is exploding. Not just the human population, but wireless devices. According to CTIA-The Wireless Association®, there are 331.6 million wireless subscriber connections in the U.S., which is more than the population. Thanks to constant innovation and competition within the wireless industry, consumers are also frequently upgrading their wireless devices to take advantage of the newest and hottest mobile products and services. CTIA also states that there are more than 630 different handsets and devices manufactured for the U.S. market. There are so many active devices that U.S. market penetration is 104.6 percent. That’s more than one wireless device per person.

This proliferation of gadgets would belie the common sense conclusion that the convergence in smart devices has reduced the number of units owned. Surveys by CTIA reveal 50 percent of American adults own a smartphone as of February 2012, up from 36 percent in February 2011, while the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) predicts smartphones, with an average lifespan of 18 months, will be the most purchased consumer electronic device this year. In their fourteenth Annual Household CE Ownership and Market Potential Study more than one in five (22 percent) of U.S. households said they plan to purchase the device in 2012.

When these consumers purchase new devices, what happens to their old phones? The most recent Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) data shows that approximately 141 million mobile devices were ready for end-of-life management in 2009. “More than any other type of product,” says the report. In 2009 only eight percent of cellphones (approximately 11.8 million devices) were recycled. This indicates that the remainder must be in storage or been thrown in the trash. These low levels of collection persist even in the 25 states with e-waste laws, 17 of which have banned electronic waste from landfills.

From an ecological perspective, one hopes unwanted cellphones are passed along for reuse. CTIA’s project, MyWireless.org, found in their own survey that more than 84 percent of consumers were aware that their cellphones or wireless devices were recyclable and almost 54 percent of consumers had donated or recycled an “old” device or accessories. However, a recent survey by Call2Recycle®, the only free rechargeable battery and cellphone collection program in North America, found nearly half of Americans (46 percent) have cellphones that need to be disposed of or discarded.

For the last two years Market Velocity and Call2Recycle have partnered to increase the reuse and recycling of used cellphones. “We enjoy working with Call2Recycle to ensure discarded cellphones and their rechargeable batteries are disposed of properly,” said Mark Eigenbauer, president of Market Velocity, Inc. “Not only is it important to keep these materials out of landfills, but it is also essential to conserve resources by reusing and recycling.”

Having diverted over 70 million pounds of rechargeable batteries from the solid waste stream since 1996, Call2Recycle expanded its program to begin accepting cellphones in 2004. As an active voice in promoting the environmentally-safe reclamation and recycling of rechargeable batteries, the organization has an inherent interest in the end-of-life disposal of devices powered by these batteries. While a small portion of the material collected by Call2Recycle are cellphones and accessories, the organization handles everything with acute environmental consideration. This commitment earned Call2Recycle recognition as an e-Steward by the Basel Action Network. The organization is also the first program of its kind to receive the Responsible Recycling Practices Standard (R2) certification.

Even though reuse is the environmentally preferred scenario, less than ten percent of cellphones collected by Call2Recycle go for reuse because of the need to meet stringent e-Steward qualification standards. All phones and devices received through Call2Recycle that will be sent into the reuse market are completely tested to determine fully functionality, documented, and packaged for safe shipping to reuse destinations by a certified third party. Data wiping on the phones that will be entering the reuse market is completed on a per model basis by a variety of methods which may include use of built in tools and manufactures’ software. Functional test procedures are successfully completed to ensure that quality standards on each phone sent for reuse are met.

Because the full lifecycle costs of electronic products include product design, the acquisition of raw materials, component manufacturing, device assembly, transportation, purchase and use, storage, and end-of-life management (recycling or disposal), reclamation of as much material as possible is important. It is estimated that for every 5,000 cellphones recycled, 11,000 kilowatt hours of energy are saved. According to the EPA, recycling one million cellphones saves enough energy to power more than 185 U.S. households with electricity for a year.

What stops consumers from recycling their devices? A number of hurdles stand in the way: habits, fear of data security, worry that a device will be recycled using dangerous practices, lack of understanding of residual value, and a host of other concerns. When the Call2Recycle survey asked what barriers to recycling exist, 44 percent said not knowing how or where to recycle old technology, while 19 percent say a local store doesn’t offer a program. Other constraints cited include difficulty finding a collection event (16 percent) and lack of municipal recycling options (15 percent). Nearly one quarter said they recycle their electronics if they can reap a financial benefit.

Call2Recycle has over 30,000 collection sites in North America. In addition, most major cellphone carriers offer some sort of recycling option. Mobile network operators have a crucial role to play as green champions due to their unique customer-facing position, including recycling initiatives and providing eco-ratings at point-of-sale. The CTIA Go Wireless Go Green initiative offers recommendations for safely removing information before recycling a device:

  • Preserve the contacts, photos, texts or other data you want to keep.
  • Terminate your device’s wireless service by contacting your provider.
  • Use device-specific instructions to clear the device’s memory of stored information.
  • Remove the SIM card (found in some GSM or 4G devices). If you’re unsure if your device has one, contact your provider for more information.

The key to the success of any program is participation. All contributors in bringing products to market must be involved in educating and motivating consumers to properly dispose of them. But everyone, including consumers, must act responsibly to minimize the environmental impact of proliferating devices by reducing consumption, reusing as much as possible and recycling.

For information on Call2Recycle’s rechargeable battery and cellphone recycling program or to find the collection site closest to you, please visit www.call2recycle.org.

Cheryl Lofrano-Zaske is the Manager of Safety & Compliance for Call2Recycle