In 2005, there were about 500 million old cell phones sitting in drawers or closets, and the number is on the rise.© www.cohesion.rice.edu
"A gold wedding band generates 20 tons of waste [with underground mining]," says D"Esposito, whose organization is teamed with CollectiveGood to collect phones. "Each time you’re recycling enough gold for a wedding band, that’s 20 tons less of waste, and that’s not even considering the cyanide used or metals released into the environment if water goes through the process."
This also doesn’t take into account the energy saved. According to Thea McManus, Acting Director of the Municipal and Industrial Solid Waste Division at the EPA, "If we took 100 million cell phones that we believe are ready today, and we recycled them and mined them, we could produce enough energy with electricity to heat and cool 194,000 homes for a year."
Before that happens, companies have to wrestle phones from their greatest enemy: the desk drawer. In 2005, there were about 500 million old cell phones sitting in drawers or closets, and with a cell phone turnover rate of about once a year, it’s only increasing.
"The issue with phones is that there isn’t much of a negative impact from storing one," says Boswell. "It’s not like it’s a 65-inch TV that every time you walk by it you think "I don’t need this in the middle of my living room." [But] when you stop using a certain phone, that’s the time to recycle it."
Meanwhile, the metals that are being mined now either go into electronics or to jewelers. But don’t expect to walk into a jewelry store and request a necklace from recycled material any time soon.
"Smelters are constantly feeding in materials, and by and large they"ll see used electronics, process them, then put in some raw ore. It’s hard to say what came out of the end at given time was from electronics," says Mike Newman, vice president of ReCellular.
To solve that issue, organizations like EARTHWORKS are working to define the conditions under which one might produce metals in a responsible manner. The goal is a labeling system that comes with the assurance that a particular product was made from recycled metal.
In terms of the final product, the only difference between the recycled metals and those that come out of the ground, are a much friendlier environmental impact.
"Copper is copper and gold is gold," Newman says. "There’s no question that we’re better off as a global society by mining these old phones or other electronics than pulling new metals out of the ground, because it works just as well."
CONTACTS: CollectiveGood; EARTHWORKS Recycle My Cell Phone program; HOBI International Inc.; ReCellular.
AMANDA PETERKA is a former editorial intern at E and writes regularly on green topics.