Wireless Waste Disposal on the Rise

By 2005, nearly 130 million cell phones -- totaling about 65,000 tons of waste — will be thrown away every year in the United States, ending up in landfills and incinerators, according to a study released by the New York-based environmental research firm Inform Inc.

Once in landfills or incinerators, cell phones pose health and environmental risks because they contain toxic substances such as cadmium, arsenic and nickel, as well as brominated flame retardants used in plastic components, according to Inform's report, "Waste in the Wireless World: The Challenge of Cell Phones." These substances can leach into soil and groundwater from landfills to form toxic dioxins and furans.

Other environmental groups also have warned about the dangers posed by similar electronic waste, or e-waste, such as computers and monitors, handheld electronic devices and portable digital assistants (PDAs).

According to the Washington, D.C.-based Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association (CTIA), the industry's trade association, there are more than 135 million current U.S. cell phone users, up from 340,000 users in 1985. Inform estimates that phones typically are used for 18 months and are traded in or discarded for another phone.

To minimize the health and environmental effects of cell phone waste, Inform recommends reducing the use of toxic substances in cell phones, particularly lead and brominated flame retardants; developing a single technical standard for all cell phone carriers; and designing all cell phones and accessories for disassembly, reuse and recycling.

Disposal-related recommendations include implementing effective take-back programs for cell phones; offering financial incentives, such as deposit and refund systems, to encourage consumers to return cell phones and other devices for recycling; and targeting rechargeable batteries for take-back.

The industry already has been taking a proactive approach to wireless phones, their recycling and reuse for some time, says Travis Larson, spokesman for the CTIA. To date, the CTIA has collected more than 1 million wireless phones that either are reused or recycled. Additionally, phones are donated to victims of domestic violence or are sold at a lower cost abroad.

Larson also notes that companies such as Overland Park, Kan.-based Sprint and Arlington, Va.-based Verizon have instituted carrier take-back programs. And the Wireless Foundation, part of the CTIA, has a program that allows charities to collect phones. The Wireless Foundation then pays the charities for their collection services.

Nevertheless, the report indicates that the United States is the last industrialized country to deal with this e-waste problem. Legislation in Europe, Asia and Australia already has promised to eliminate toxic substances from e-waste products. Other countries also currently use a single design standard to encourage users to keep their phones for a longer period. And Australia recently instituted a nationwide take-back program dedicated to recover and recycle cell phones.

Several states, including California, Massachusetts and Minnesota, are considering legislation that would enact extended producer responsibility (EPR) laws, which would make manufacturers pay the cost of managing e-waste. But some environmental groups argue that it will take too long and that a federal law should be enacted.

"We have to close the loop and get toxic substances out of our products to the greatest extent possible," says Bette Fishbein, an Inform senior fellow and author of the report."There are solutions to this issue ... It's not a black hole."

The CTIA encourages take-back programs, Larson says, but the group does not support developing a single phone standard because it could hurt competition between carriers.

The Inform report was partially funded by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Washington, D.C., Region II, with other foundation support.