Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Save the Cell Phone, Save the World

What toxic waste that you don't think about is piling up in our landfills? What source of gold is being tossed in the trash? What is it that people throw away that they could exchange for money?

Give up? It's cell phones. Cell phones are an environmental threat, a potential source of valuable minerals, and a marketable commodity all in one. Let's have a look at this underestimated resource and see what we've been missing.

A cell phone doesn't seem like much. It fits in the palm of your hand or tucks neatly into a pocket or purse. In its plastic or metal case a cell phone certainly seems chemically inert. Nothing leaks out and it doesn't stain your hand. So what's so toxic about a mobile telephone?

While in service or even left for decades in a desk drawer, a cell phone won't be damaging the environment. The problem is more subtle than that. The magic that gives a palm sized communicator the power to reach around the world lies in the materials and processing that create the electronic circuitry. These things aren't made out of renewable pine trees. They're made with lead, cadmium, arsenic and mercury. They also have their share of plastic and glass. Toxic metals can leach out of the circuit boards and batteries once the phones are attacked by water and various liquid chemicals that also find their way into landfills. On day one an obsolete phone is just buried there with the kitchen wastes, old shoes and industrial refuse. On day 1,000 or day 10,000 nasty processes are at work, dissolving captive chemicals and adding them to a slurry of toxins that will work their way into the water table, if they can.

One cell phone will destroy the Earth? Of course not. The one tossed here and the one tossed there represent a minuscule problem. It's when they are joined by hundreds and hundreds of millions of their ilk that the problem grows too big to ignore. The thing that's unique about cell phones is that they are on a 2 or 3 year cycle. People sign up for cellular service, activate their spanking new wireless device, and proceed to glue it to their ear for the duration of their contract. Some people just keep using their phone past the contract date. But most can't wait to get either a new model phone or a different carrier, who will also insist on a new phone. Since the phones are subsidized by the carriers in order to hold onto customers for a least a year or two, the cost to the consumer is low. So what do they care if they toss the old phone and get a new one free or at a small cost?

It is estimated that 11 million otherwise working cell phones are retired every month. Some are immediately dropped into the dumpster, but many more are simply slipped into a desk drawer or box in the basement. You might not want to keep using the old mobile, but it seems too good to just throw away. So an estimated 500 million of them are sitting in distributed landfills, otherwise known as people's homes, right now. Some day, maybe on moving day, one family member is going to decide that this unwanted device will never be used again and should go in the trash along with broken toys, worn out jeans, and everything that wouldn't sell at the last yard sale. Some day all 500 million and probably many times that number of cell phones will be slowly decaying in our public landfills and private dumping grounds.

What makes this situation even sadder is that those same consumers could have mailed their unwanted phone to a recycler at no cost. The recycler disassembles the phone, recovers plastics and metals for reuse in other applications, and sends nothing to the landfill. That's right, nothing. Who pays for all this work? The value of the materials in the phone are enough to cover the costs of recycling. What might seem like worthless materials are actually in demand. That includes minute amounts of gold used in chip and circuit board manufacturing. A little gold plating here and there and you're talking a mine's worth of the stuff spread over millions and millions of phones.

Many cell phones don't even have to meet the crusher so soon in their young lives. Recent model cellular phones are quite salable in bulk to third world countries clamoring for affordable technology. Many can also be repurposed as emergency phones for people living in shelters. Some can be refurbished as offered as pre-paid phones. All of these possibilities mean that the phone you were going to toss in the trash might be a $10, $20 or $100 bill in disguise. If you took a few minutes to order a pre-paid mailer and sent your usable but unwanted surplus cell phone in for evaluation, you could be getting a check in the mail instead of a guilty feeling from contributing to the waste problem.

Do you have one or more old cell phones hanging around your house awaiting their demise? See how much your cell phone model(s) are worth and then send them in for recycling or reuse. You'll feel good and might wind up with some unexpected cash in your pocket.

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