Calling On Cell Phones

DESPITE OPPOSITION from wireless carriers and phone manufacturers, the California State Assembly passed a bill in late May requiring cell phone sellers to take back and recycle old phones at no cost to consumers. The bill is headed to the state senate.

According to Democratic Assemblywoman Fran Pavley, who introduced the measure, nearly 40,000 cell phones are thrown away every day in California. “That's a serious threat to human health and our environment, and we need to provide a real alternative,” she said.

Two studies — one from the University of Florida's Solid and Hazardous Waste Engineering Program, the other from the California Environmental Protection Agency's Department of Toxic Substances Control — recently confirmed that discarded cell phones should be managed as hazardous waste.

The University of Florida study tested 43 cell phones and found that the average composition, not including the battery, contained 45 percent plastic, 40 percent printed wiring or circuit board, 4 percent liquid crystal display (LCD), 3 percent magnesium plate and 8 percent metal. Among the toxic substances recorded were lead, brominated flame-retardants, cadmium and beryllium. In both studies, rechargeable cell phone batteries were found to have toxic levels of lead and cadmium.

Both studies were published by the Basel Action Network (BAN), a global toxic trade watchdog that is concerned about the growing amount of e-waste that requires processing, says Sarah Westervelt, a toxics research analyst for the organization. “As a nation, we continue to dump [e-waste] in our landfills or send it offshore to developing nations.”

Less than a decade ago, Westervelt continues, “[e-waste] was in such a smaller volume and so little was known about its toxicity. Now, people want to upgrade [their technology] every 18 months to three years, and there's a massive volume of hazardous waste.”

Four states have banned e-waste from landfills: California, Massachusetts, Maine and Minnesota. Rhode Island is considering a bill, and municipalities also are passing landfill bans. In May, South Dakota's largest landfill, the Sioux Falls Regional Sanitary Landfill, passed an electronics ban. The facility is giving its haulers a three-month grace period and educating the public about e-cycling, says Landfill Manager Jason Chan. Consumers can leave e-waste in semitrailers at the landfill. Millennium Recycling, a local company, will collect and recycle the material.

While the landfill incurs costs associated with the e-waste program, they are worth it, Chan says. “It's the right thing to do, and we want to show we're committed to running our landfill responsibly.”

In the meantime, the nonprofit Rechargeable Battery Recycling Corp. (RBRC), Atlanta, has created the first national program for recycling cell phones and their batteries. On Earth Day in April, RBRC introduced Call2Recycle, which collects the items at some 30,000 locations nationwide, including partner retail establishments such as Home Depot and Radio Shack.

During Call2Recycle's launches in New York City and Washington, D.C., 1,000 phones were collected, says RBRC Vice President Ralph Millard. The first week of the program, RBRC received 20 40-pound boxes of old cell phones from collection points. As the program grows, some phones will be refurbished, and proceeds will go to charity, Millard says.

It's crucial to educate the public that cell phones and their batteries are hazardous but easy to recycle, Millard says, citing a RBRC survey of 1,000 American adults. “Seventy percent were unaware that cell phones could be recycled, so promotion and education are not out there,” he says. “We'll change that.”