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WHAT TO DO ABOUT
DISCARDED CELL PHONES

Cell phone use has grown dramatically in the United States, from 340,000 subscribers in 1985 to over 128 million in 2001, reports Waste in the Wireless World: The Challenge of Cell Phones, a study released today by the national environmental research organization INFORM. Cell phones are typically used for only 18 months before being replaced, and by 2005 about 130 million of these devices, weighing approximately 65,000 tons, will be retired annually in the US. Most of them will initially be stored away in closets and drawers, creating a stockpile of about 500 million used phones that will soon enter the waste stream.


Waste in the Wireless World analyzes the environmental problems created by cell phones, which also apply to other wireless electronic devices, such as personal digital assistants, portable e-mail devices, pagers, pocket PCs, and MP3 music players. All are made of similar materials and present similar problems with respect to the waste they generate. Wireless waste poses particularly acute problems when these small devices are sent to landfills or incinerators, where releases of the many toxic materials they contain create threats to human health and the environment.

“Because these devices are so small, their environmental impacts might appear to be minimal,” said Bette Fishbein, INFORM Senior Fellow and report author. “But the growth in their use has been so enormous that the environmental and public health impacts of the waste they create are a significant concern. Now is the time to address them.”


Waste in the Wireless World
presents a series of specific recommendations for minimizing the environmental and health impacts of cell phone waste:

Design-related Recommendations


Disposal-related Recommendations

  • US manufacturers should implement effective take-back programs for cell phones. An effective program includes targets for collection and reuse/recycling, reporting requirements, and enforcement mechanisms. Most voluntary take-back initiatives for cell phones and/or other electronic equipment in the US lack all of these crucial components.

  • Financial incentives, such as deposit/refund systems, are needed to encourage consumers to return cell phones and other small electronic devices for collection and reuse/recycling. In the US, deposit/refund systems for beverage containers have been very effective at encouraging the return and recycling of cans and bottles: recycling rates are three times higher in states with deposit/refund systems in place than in states without such systems. Providing discounts on new phones or phone service in exchange for returned equipment can also encourage consumer participation in take-back programs. Other models applicable to cell phones may be found in the European experience with battery take-back – in Austria, for example, customers receive free lottery tickets when they return their spent batteries.

  • Rechargeable batteries, which are particularly toxic, should be a target for take-back. Cell phones are powered by any of several rechargeable battery types, all of which contain toxic substances that can contaminate the environment when burned in incinerators or disposed of in landfills. If each of the 130 million cell phones that will be discarded each year by 2005 uses two sets of batteries before being retired, 260 million of these batteries will enter the waste stream each year from cell phones alone. Today, the only nationwide, industry-wide product take-back program in the US is for rechargeable batteries. This program, run by the Rechargeable Battery Recycling Corporation, represents a positive step for the US, since producers that participate take full financial responsibility for managing their products at end of life. However, the program has not reported regularly on its recycling rates, has failed to meet its targets, and has had to face no consequences for the shortfall.

  • Take-back programs should be introduced from the outset for all disposable cell phones, if and when these devices become available. Cell phones designed to be thrown away after being used for about 60 minutes could produce large amounts of additional waste. Plans to market such phones have encountered delays, but the prospect of their introduction remains a reality. If these products are not designed for reuse and recycling, with programs established to take them back after consumers discard them, the waste they generate will place additional burdens on municipal waste systems and the taxpayers who fund them.


  • Progress Abroad, Pressure at Home

    INFORM’s study documents efforts in Europe, Japan, and Australia to deal with this fast-growing and hazardous waste stream. For example, Australia has implemented the world’s first and only nationwide take-back program dedicated to recovering and recycling cell phones. In the European Union (EU), pending directives will require electronics manufacturers to phase out toxic components and take responsibility for waste generated by products marketed in the EU. And forthcoming design guidelines in Japan will result in more long-lasting and recyclable electronic products with fewer toxic components. In the US, no such national commitments have been made.

    “Despite the lack of any current or pending federal legislation addressing the end-of-life management of electronics, US government and industry are likely to be influenced by trends abroad,” said Fishbein. “For example, state-level legislation is being considered in California, Massachusetts, and Minnesota that would make producers responsible for paying the costs of managing the waste generated by their electronic products. Additionally, US manufacturers will have to follow the applicable requirements abroad for internationally marketed goods by eliminating toxic substances from these products and funding their take-back. With such changes on the horizon, American industry has even more reason to get ahead of the curve.”
    “Cell phones and other wireless electronic devices will inevitably play an increasingly important role in domestic and global communications,” added INFORM President Joanna Underwood. “It is time to implement programs to recover them for reuse and recycling in order to avoid contamination of our environment and significant threats to human health.”

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    Written by: Inform, Inc.

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