Week of 05/06/2007

Dear EarthTalk: What happens to my old cell phone after I upgrade? Do the stores really recycle them or give them to the poor, or are they just ending up in landfills? Where can I take mine to ensure that it is dealt with properly?

—Paul G., Reno NV

As cellphones proliferate they are giving computers and monitors some competition for the dubious distinction as the largest contributor to the world’s growing e-waste problem. Indeed, toxin-laden electronics are clogging landfills and polluting air and groundwater supplies from coast to coast.

The average North American gets a new cellphone every 18 to 24 months, making old phones—many which contain hazardous materials like lead, mercury, cadmium, brominated flame retardants and arsenic—the fastest growing type of manufactured garbage in the nation. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Americans discard 125 million phones each year, creating 65,000 tons of waste.

Luckily, a new breed of electronics recyclers is stepping in to help. Call2Recycle, a nonprofit organization, offers consumers and retailers in the U.S. and Canada simple ways to recycle old phones. Consumers can enter their zipcode on the group’s website and be directed to a drop box in their area. Most major electronics retailers, from Radio Shack to Office Depot, participate in the program and offer Call2Recycle drop-boxes in their stores. Call2Recycle recovers the phones and sells them back to manufacturers which either refurbish and resell them or recycle their parts for use in making new products.

The CollectiveGood organization takes used cellphones, refurbishes them and then re-sells them to distributors and carriers for use primarily in developing countries, providing affordable communications to poorer citizens while helping to "bridge the digital divide." They also recycle all non-functioning batteries through a partnership with the Rechargeable Battery Recycling Corporation. When you donate your phone to CollectiveGood you can direct the profits from the sales to a charity of your choice.

Another player is ReCellular, which manages the in-store collection programs for Bell Mobility, Sprint PCS, T-Mobile, Best Buy and Verizon. The company also maintains partnerships with Easter Seals, the March of Dimes, Goodwill Industries and other nonprofits that undertake cellphone collection drives as a way of funding their charitable work. According to ReCellular vice-president Mike Newman, the company is trying to change attitudes about used cellphones, to get consumers to "automatically think of recycling cellphones just like they currently do with paper, plastic or glass.

Neither the U.S. or Canada mandates electronics recycling of any kind at the federal level, but a few states and provinces are getting into the act at their own initiative. California recently passed the first cellphone recycling law in North America. As of July 1, 2006, electronics retailers doing business there must have a cellphone recycling system in place in order to legally sell their products, whether online or in-store. Other U.S. states considering similar legislation include Illinois, Mississippi, New Jersey, New York, Vermont and Virginia, while the Canadian provinces of British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan and New Brunswick are likely to jump on the mandatory cell phone recycling bandwagon soon.

CONTACTS: Call2Recycle; CollectiveGood; ReCellular

Dear EarthTalk: Are there nontoxic substitutes for Scotchgard? I just re-covered an antique chair and I want to protect the fabric from spills and dog paws.

—Don Cummings, Los Angeles, CA

Scotchgard was created by accident in a 3M laboratory a half-century ago after an experimental chemical formula spilled onto a technician’s sneaker. Remarkably, it kept the spot clean despite the rest of the canvas fabric collecting dirt over time. Scotchgard went on to become famous for its almost-magical ability to protect clothes, carpets and furniture from water, dirt and stains. 3M later created variations for use in food containers, denture cleaners, floor polishes, firefighting foams and many other products.

But in May 2000, 3M started phasing out production, citing evidence that the key ingredient of the product, perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS), was becoming ubiquitous in the environment as well as in the bloodstreams of humans and wildlife. Some environmentalists say that 3M was being no model citizen in doing so. According to the Environmental Working Group, "The more than 1,000 documents in [the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA)"s] Administrative Record on Scotchgard—some 29,000 pages of material—show clearly that 3M knew its products were in the blood of the general population as early as 1976 and had detected PFOS in their own plant workers as early as 1979." 3M waited more than 20 years, they say, under threats from the EPA, to remove the chemical from the marketplace.

PFOS is a "fluorocarbon" similar to the chemicals banned by the Montreal Protocol for depleting Earth’s ozone layer. It builds up in the environment, eventually "bioaccumulating" in the food chain whereby people and animals retain larger and larger amounts in their blood and tissue over time. PFOS combines "persistence, bioaccumulation and toxicity properties to an extraordinary degree," says the EPA.

3M has since developed a new Scotchgard formulation free of PFOS, using instead a related substance, perfluorobutane sulfonate (PFBS). 3M worked extensively with EPA scientists in developing the formula, and claims that PFBS does not share the toxicity or bioaccumulation tendencies of its PFOS cousin. PFBS is still too new for researchers to know whether or not these claims will be borne out over time, and the EPA is not releasing the results of the dozens of studies it conducted on PFBS in conjunction with 3M.

Unfortunately for those not willing to take the risk, few alternatives work as effectively at protecting fabrics. Vectra Spray, which is based on a chemical similar to PFBS, is one option. Its manufacturer, Georgia-based Vectra Enterprises, has solicited independent tests that determined the product to be non-toxic and safe. It can also be sprayed onto fabrics and other surfaces previously treated with the old version of Scotchgard, says Vectra, to lock the harmful PFOS in place so it can’t get out into the environment.

But for those averse to using any synthetic chemical on their furniture, carpets and other valuables, the best solution might just be to choose a busy fabric pattern that can hide stains if they do happen, and to treat any such accidents with an all-natural spot cleaner such as Orange Sol, Castor and Pollux" Out Spot! or Ecover’s Stain Remover. While these all-natural formulas won’t protect fabric the way Scotchgard does, they do a good job of removing stains after the fact.

CONTACTS: Vectraspray; 3M; Orange-Sol; Castor & Pollux; Ecover