GUEST POST: What to Do With Unwanted Cell Phones

Cell phones get tossed out almost as easily as they get purchased.

E-waste is an ongoing problem worldwide. Look at cell phone recycling as a way to address the problem, writes guest blogger, Sarah Parker.

Cell phones have become a necessary part of daily life, and with the advent of the smart phone they are only becoming more of a daily fixture.  Every month or so a new model comes out that has faster processing speeds, updated features, and the coolest new applications that many feel they absolutely need.   Because of this, the average shelf life of a cell phone is 18 months, which leads to 100 million phones being replaced each year and at least two million ending up in landfills each week.

Not only are we left with millions of unwanted phones, we also are left with their associated batteries, chargers, and other accessories.  As of right now, there are approximately 500 million unwanted phones sitting in drawers at home and polluting our nations landfills.

Many materials contained in cell phones are toxic, which includes the precious metals beryllium, cadmium, mercury, arsenic, and antimony.  When they are chucked in a landfill the pollutants can seep into the water table, polluting the drinking water.  When they are incinerated, they pose a huge threat to the quality of the air.  Cell phone coatings and their lithium-ion batteries are often made of lead, so that if exposed to sunlight or high temperatures they are in danger of exploding.

The EPA has several of these components on its list of PBT’s (persistent organic pollutants), which means they are resistant to environmental degradation and can accumulate in the fatty tissue of mammals.  These metals also cause damage to the nervous, reproductive, circulatory, lymphatic and digestive systems, lead to brain and kidney damage, and cause skin conditions and cancer.

Now that we’ve discussed the bad news, there are things that can be done to help prevent this e-waste from ending up in our landfills and eco-system.  In 2007 for example, 14 million people recycled their old phones.  There are many organizations which exist to take your old, unwanted cell-phones such as charities, government programs, retailers and providers.  The EPA has a program called Plug-In To eCycling, which sponsers a “National Cell Phone Recycling Week” every April. Phones that are in working order will often be donated to families in need, or sold for charity at a discounted price.  Ones that are broken or in non-working order can be refurbished, recycled and turned into new products, which has the added bonus of saving energy and the resources required to manufacture new phones.

The EPA has teamed up with local governments, charities, retailers, and carriers to start the eCycling program which lets people drop off or mail in their old cell phones.  If the cell phone is not in working order and can’t be refurbished and resold, according to this site, then they “either get broken down and sold for parts or passed on to a smelter, where the entire phone is melted down and the liquids are separated to be reconstituted. (This process is sometimes called “above-ground mining.”) Smelters harvest the little bits of valuable metals (gold, copper, iron, silver, zinc, nickel, platinum, tin) used in the circuitboards and soldering.”

Sarah Parker lives in Greensboro, NC along with her husband, two children, and her Golden Retriever.  She is a part-time blogger, full-time Mom and a passionate environmentalist.

Photos:  Route79 and D’arcy Norman