Cell Phone Ecology

Finding New Homes for Old Phones

Only one in 10 cell phones get recycled, per a 2007 U.S. government report.
© Getty Images

It's not much of a stretch to liken America's relationship with cells phones to a once sizzling romance that ends in goodbye.

Fated love affairs typically begin with blind infatuation and fiery passion before reality sets in, cooling the embers enough to allow more guarded, sometimes less attractive aspects of the self to surface. Interest wanes until the love object is abandoned or replaced by an alluring new one.

Americans relate to cell phones in much the same way. An old phone, with once novel features that drew fascination, is discarded with hardly a thought when an updated model makes it seem obsolete. That consumers replace cell phones about every two years makes this analogy seem less silly.

A parallel can be drawn, too, between the innards of a cell phone and what is revealed when one person lets another peek inside: it's not all pretty. Some nasty materials lurk behind the bright shiny casing, making cell phone disposal a knotty environmental issue, analogous to ending, with minimal damages, a relationship gone sour.

In California for example, cell phones and their rechargeable batteries are considered hazardous waste and prohibited from disposal in landfills or incinerators to prevent contamination of soil, water and air. The handsets are typically 40% plastic, 40% metal and 20% ceramics and trace materials. The circuit boards can contain arsenic and a number of toxic metals including lead, mercury, cadmium, beryllium, nickel and antimony, according to the California Department of Toxic Substances Control.

The toxicity of such metals derives from their ability to disrupt the function of vital biological molecules like proteins, enzymes and DNA. They pose additional hazards because they are persistent and accumulate in human tissues and the environment.

Improper disposal of cell phones adds to ecological degradation in other important ways. For one, the circuitry also contains gold and other valuable metals that could be recaptured.

Mining of gold is a particularly dirty business, as exposed in the January 2009 National Geographic cover story "The Real Price of Gold." Gold mining generates more waste per unit weight, in the form of rock and chemical effluent, than any other metal. Poisonous cyanide or mercury, often used to separate gold from rock, pollute the environs. Large mining operations create open-pit eyesores so vast they can be seen from space.According to a 2005 report from the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit EARTHWORKS, recycling all of the estimated 130 million cell phones retired yearly in the United States would yield 202,000 ounces of gold — double the annual yield of the notorious Zortman-Landusky mine in Montana that operated until 1998 and left a legacy of pollution requiring water treatment in perpetuity.

There's also the issue of the energy that goes into making new cell phones, from extracting the raw materials, like oil and metals, to manufacturing and packaging. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, recycling all cell phones ready for end-of-life management each year would save the energy equivalent of powering 194,000 homes.

To make cell phone recycling convenient, retailers in California are required to take back old cell phones and rechargeable batteries for reuse, recycling or proper disposal under first-of-a-kind state laws enacted in 2006. Retailers have to accept even a phone bought elsewhere when a new one is purchased.

The federal government runs a voluntary recycling program called "Recycling Your Cell Phone. It's An Easy Call." The website gives both instructions for terminating service and erasing data stored on a phone along with drop-off or mail-in locations.

And there's no lack of opportunities to donate used phones to charity. For instance, siblings Robbie and Brittany Bergquist of Massachusetts launched Cell Phones for Soldiers in 2004 when they were just 12 and 13 years old, selling donated phones to recyclers to purchase pre-paid calling cards for overseas soldiers. One donated phone pays for an hour of talk time.

CollectiveGood, a Virginia-based nonprofit, refurbishes donated funds and sells them at low cost to developing countries. Donated phones are tax deductible, and the proceeds go to the charity of your choice.

ReCellular, the nation's largest cell phone refurbishing and recycling firm, processes half a million phones monthly, keeping that many out of landfills. By utilizing smelters in developed countries only, ReCellular avoids the human and environmental exploitation reported in China and other developing nations where workers dismantle toxic e-waste without adequate protections, says company Vice President Mike Newman.

Despite all these opportunities, only one in 10 phones get recycled, per a 2007 U.S. government report. So where do the rest go?

Roughly 1/3 get stashed somewhere (e.g. in a drawer) or passed onto someone else, and about half are landfilled. CollectiveGood estimates that over one billion cell phones lie idle in storage or are already discarded in landfills.

Given all the environmental costs of cell phones, certainly the most eco-friendly cell is the one you already own.But, if you decide your relationship with your cell just can't be salvaged, think back to sweeter moments you once shared and consider first donating it so someone else can have a crack at a satisfying relationship with it. If on the other hand you're sure the phone's too dysfunctional to make anyone happy, then search out a recycling location—finding one is as easy as finding a retailer that sells them!

SARAH (STEVE) MOSKO, PH.D., is an environmental writer and sleep expert living in California who blogs at sarahmosko.wordpress.com.