Monday, June 26, 2006

There's Gold In Them Thar Cell Phones

What's better than taking a pick and shovel to a mountain of gold ore? Mining a mountain of cell phones for the gold and other minerals they contain. It is economically viable and much better for the environment than a typical mining operation. There's even a way for you to cash in.

Gold is not just for rings, coins and ingots stored at the Federal Reserve Bank. It's a natural element with excellent properties for electronics. Gold is a good conductor of electricity, better than copper or aluminum. It's also a good conductor of heat and very malleable. It can be made into extremely thin foils or plated onto other metals to improve their conductivity. Gold doesn't oxidize the way other common metals do. Gold plated connectors and switch contacts will maintain low resistance connections even in humid atmospheres. That's why you'll find gold in nearly every electronic product, including cell phones.

Now don't expect to crack open an old cell phone and find it gleaming like a polished nugget. Gold is used sparingly for plating contacts and in bonding wires within the integrated circuits. Computer circuit boards have far more gold. Exotic military and space equipment might be rich with it.

The reason for focusing on cell phones is that there is a huge untapped mother lode out there sitting in drawers, closets and basement storage. It's estimated that there may be as many as half a billion unused cell phones in storage. Where do they all come from? People upgrading to new phones as they change service. A typical cell phone is used for 18 months and then discarded when service is terminated or transferred to a newer, snazzier model. About 100 million phones will get disconnected this year alone. Some are donated to recycling drives, a few are resold privately, and too many are simply thrown into the trash. Most are still lying dormant because their owners perceive them to have value but don't know to extract it.

Professionals do know how to extract the hidden value in old cell phones, and in more ways than you might think. Newer high tech models can be refurbished and resold. Even common late model phones are in demand in third world countries, where individuals can't necessarily afford brand new cell phones and wireless service is more available than landlines. Other phones can be set up as 911 emergency-only phones and given out by the police to people who want them for security.

What about cell phones that are much older or damaged? This is where the gold mining comes in. Obsolete phones are disassembled and processed to remove the gold and other precious metals. Also recovered and reused are plastics, glass, lead, cadmium and other materials. Some of these materials, particularly lead, cadmium, arsenic and mercury are environmental hazards and could become a real toxic waste problem if hundreds of millions of phones wind up in landfills. Recycling at the raw material level generates enough revenue to make the recovery process a viable commercial operation on a large scale. It provides materials for future manufacturing needs and keeps toxic waste out of the environment.

So how do you cash in? Not by trying to disassemble your old phone to extract some minute amounts of valuable minerals. That phone you've recently taken out of service may still have some value left. It may even be worth more than you paid for it if you got a rebate deal with your service. The way to find out is to check the value of your phone with a major cell phone recycler. Send it in with the prepaid mailing box they provide, and once they verify it works properly you'll get a check.

Even if your phone is too old to have a monetary value, you'll feel better about properly recycling the components than adding to an already serious problem with toxic electronics waste.

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