Recycling Cell Phones

Reduce Toxic Trash

06-01-2003 // Rene Ebersole

MOST OF US have bought one for some reason or another: It could save your life in an emergency; you need to keep in touch with family when you’re on the go; you like the freedom of being able to talk anytime, anywhere. But what do you do with that miraculous little bundle of plastic and fiber optics when you switch to another cell phone company, upgrade to a better plan or splurge on a fancy new phone with all the digital bells and whistles? If you’re like most people, you toss the old phone in a drawer or throw it in the trash.

And that’s the rub. According to a recent report, 130 million cell phones—complete with batteries and chargers—will be pitched each year by 2005, adding up to an annual glut of 65,000 tons of garbage. Dumped in landfills and burned in incinerators, all that wireless waste is causing serious environmental problems and threatening human health, say experts.

“Because these devices are so small, their environmental impacts might appear to be minimal,” says Bette Fishbein, a senior fellow at the national environmental research organization INFORM and author of the report. “But the growth in their use has been so enormous that the environmental and public health impacts of the waste they create are a significant concern.”

The popularity of cellular phones is soaring. In the mid-1980s, 340,000 people in the United States owned cell phones. Today, that number is well over 100 million. Worldwide, more than a billion people have gone wireless. But as the number of cell phone users grows, so do the environmental impacts. Inside the sleek, plastic exterior of each and every discarded phone sits a package of electronics laden with hazardous substances called persistent, bioaccumulative and toxic chemicals (PBTs).

The PBTs used in cell phones include arsenic, antimony, beryllium, cadmium, copper, lead, nickel and zinc. In your phone, these materials make up the wiring and computer chips that allow you to receive and transmit calls. But in the trash, PBTs escape their plastic housings and wind their way through air, land and water into the fatty tissues of animals and humans, increasing in concentration as they climb up the food chain.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, PBTs are associated with a range of adverse health effects, including damage to the nervous system, reproductive and developmental problems, cancer and genetic impacts. They pose a special risk to children, whose bodies are still developing.

Concern is also growing about the brominated flame retardants applied to the exterior of cell phones and other electronics. Studies indicate the chemicals in the coatings likewise leach into soil and water at landfills. When burned, brominated flame retardants form dioxins and furans—some of the most deadly PBTs on the planet.

INFORM says the United States should follow the steps of the European Union (EU) in dealing with the toxic leak in the cellular bubble. The EU mandated companies to use a single standard for cell phone designs, reducing the need for consumers to dump perfectly good phones when they switch providers. The EU also recently passed a directive that requires the elimination of toxic materials in electronics. Another directive will soon require producers to take back all electronic equipment at the end of life for recycling, reuse or environmentally responsible disposal.

The U.S. Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association (CTIA) opposes government mandates that would force technology standards or require the industry to implement take-back programs. Instead, the association “encourages nonprofits to reuse, recycle or dispose of old phones in an environmentally safe manner,” says CTIA spokesperson Travis Larson. But several companies, including Verizon and Sprint, have launched take-back programs on their own. Phones collected by these companies are donated to women’s shelters and other charities, or refurbished and resold in developing countries.

Unfortunately, most of those countries lack an infrastructure to collect the phones later on down the line, says Fishbein, but donating phones to recycling programs is still a better option than dumping old phones in the trash. Cellular companies could further help by offering consumer incentives, she adds. For example, donate a phone and get a discount on a new one, or a reduced rate on a service plan. The bottom line: “We need to keep these things out of the garbage pail.”

Rene Ebersole is an associate editor.

What You Can Do

Drop used cell phones in collection boxes at stores and kiosks where cell phones are sold, or send old phones to organizations such as Charitable Recycling. For every phone it receives, Charitable Recycling will make a donation to NWF or another charity of your choice.

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