A (Phone) Call to Arms

YOU HAVE ONE. Your friends all have one. Your kids, your parents and maybe even your grandparents have one. It's safe to say that owning a mobile phone has become as common as having a traditional land line in your home. In a way, mobile phones have become a necessity of everyday life.

Now, forget last month's bill and the dropped calls and consider that U.S. consumers already have thrown 500 million cell phones into drawers or already have dumped them into landfills. According to information collected as part of the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) E-Cycling Initiative, cell phones are currently being discarded at a rate of 125 million phones a year, which results in more than 65,000 tons of wireless waste.

So what's the big deal? In general, a cell phone handset consists of 40 percent metals, 40 percent plastics, and 20 percent ceramics and trace materials. But more specifically, cell phones contain a complex mix of elements:

  • Precious metals, including silver, gold and palladium.

  • Base and special metals, including copper, nickel, cobalt, tin, aluminum, iron, indium and bismuth.

  • Metals of concern, including beryllium, lead, cadmium, arsenic, antimony and chromium.

  • Halogens, including bromine, chlorine and fluorine.

  • Plastics, glass and combustibles.

If allowed to enter the waste stream untreated, many of the hazardous materials contained in a cell phone could contaminate the ecosystem and find their way into the nation's water supply.

Exacerbating the crisis is the extremely short useful life enjoyed by most cell phones. According to the EPA report, “Life Cycle of a Cell Phone,” the average lifespan of a wireless phone is between nine and 18 months. This figure would be less troubling if the United States had established protocols for the recycling of electronic waste. But a 2005 Consumer Electronics Association survey found that 76 percent of consumers are unaware of their local electronics recycling options. Of that number, 71 percent said they would recycle if they only knew where to do so. With more than 200 million wireless subscribers in the United States today, the need to establish mechanisms for recycling cell phones is clearer than ever.

To address this issue, Sprint Nextel and Keep America Beautiful (KAB) together launched Wipe Out Wireless Waste on March 1. The campaign is part of KAB's larger Great American Cleanup — the country's largest community improvement program. The Great American Cleanup, which runs from the beginning of March to the end of May, includes litter clean-ups on public lands and waterways, recycling events, tree and flower plantings, educational workshops, vacant lot restorations and a range of hands-on stewardship projects.

KAB estimates more than 1,000 affiliates and participating organizations across all 50 states will participate in this year's “Wipe Out Wireless Waste” campaign by hosting local collection and education events. Organizers also are distributing special postage-paid mailing envelopes to encourage community members to recycle their old phones. Printable mailing labels also can be found online (see URL below).

Phones collected through this program are either refurbished and reused or smelted down for metals and plastics at an EPA-regulated facility that is ISO14001 certified. While organizers are happy to collect phones to prevent them from winding up in landfills, KAB emphasizes that one of the best ways to recycle an old cell phone is simply to give it to someone who will continue to use it.

For more information about the “Wipe Out Wireless Waste” or to locate a local Keep America Beautiful affiliate, visit www.kab.org/phonerecycling.
Nathan L. Bieck
Director of Marketing
The Wireless Alliance

TAGS: E-Waste