Upgrading to the latest smartphone or handheld device has become second nature to most people who routinely toss aside their old devices for newer models every one or two years. While many older phones are passed along to friends or family, the majority are simply tossed in a drawer and forgotten or tossed away, creating a huge and growing problem if these devices end up in a landfill.
The typical cellular phone contains such heavy metal elements as chrome, mercury, lead, selenium and arsenic -- all of which are toxic and can lead to some serious health problems like brain damage, cancer, miscarriages, reduced male fertility and genetic malformations in fetuses, say the experts. They also pose some long-term risks to the environment as these toxins leach into the soil and potentially into groundwater supplies and reservoirs.
While you may think that old phone banging around in your drawer is harmless, multiply it by the 280 million or so idle or deactivated devices in the U.S. that have yet to be recycled, according to Compass Research. Roughly half of these are smartphones packed with fairly sophisticated technology -- and a range of toxic chemicals. More than 1.68 billion wireless devices are produced each year, although less than 1% of these devices are recycled or refurbished, according to figures from the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS).
An Easy Solution
Fortunately, there are a number of recycling programs available just for smartphone and old-school cellular products. All of the major U.S.wireless carriers provide some type of recycling program that provides a way to responsibly dump your old phone, or extend its service with absolutely no cost to the first owner. Verizon Wireless, for example, launched HopeLine, a program that allows customers to donate their old phones and batteries to victims of domestic violence across the country.
The company includes a pre-paid HopeLine plastic envelope with every shipment of an upgraded newer device. You simply pop your old unit into the envelope and it will be routed to organizations that aid victims of domestic abuse (the phones are used to call authorities, friends or family for assistance and support).
Verizon has also partnered with civic organizations to place HopeLine boxes at strategic points within towns and cities. In one such effort, the company worked with the Oklahoma Coalition Against Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault (OCADVSA) and the Oklahoma City YWCA to place 40 HopeLine boxes across the entire state of Oklahoma during Domestic Violence Awareness Month in October 2011.
Providing a Smart Fix
At the recent CTIA 2012 held in New Orleans, BrightPoint, Inc. outlined its Social Responsibility Program that is part of the repair and recycling services it provides to wireless carriers, wireless service providers and others in the electronics industry. As part of this effort, BrightPoint will fix and re-market repairable devices, or responsibly recycle those devices that are too old or cannot be salvaged.
"As wireless devices have become more costly and complex, their lifespans are shrinking," said Chris Scott, Senior Vice President, Strategic Initiatives at BrightPoint North America. There is an enormous opportunity to maximize value throughout the lifecycle of the device.
Earlier this year, at MobileContent World in Barcelona, Brightstar and a number of other leading organizations, including Sprint Nextel and the CDMA Development Group, announced the creation of the Device Renewal Forum (DRF) with the goal of by establishing a common certification for refurbished wireless phones. The DRF provides a discussion forum for companies interested in issues related to device renewal and revitalization, while sub-committees will work on developing commonly-accepted standards for testing and certifying renewed devices. The result is a longer lifecycle for phones and a lesser hit to the environment, notes a group spokesman.
It Pays to Recycle
A number of companies have also surfaced that offer cash incentives for people to trade-in or sell their older cell phones and upgrade to newer and smarter models. One of the more active participants is Gazelle, funded a few years ago with the idea that people would be attracted by a bit of cash to send in their old phone instead of throwing it in a drawer or dumping it.
The company has established set amounts for specific phones, depending on the device manufacturer, age of the device and the market demand. Naturally, Apple iPhones are the most popular, although the company will also provide a quote on Motorola, LG and Nokia phones. Gazelle will also offer a bid on Apple notebooks, desktop and other devices.
Just how much can you make on your old device? Back in 2010, just after Apple unveiled its iPhone 4, more than 10,000 people sold their 2G, 3G and 3GS iPhones to Gazelle for prices ranging from $115 to $222, notes the company. Typically, a device should be less than three years old to have any worthwhile trade-in value.
Gazelle also partners with a number of organizations like retailers NewEgg and Staples to provide recycling services to customers. Staples will actually offer an eGift card in return for a working smartphone or tablet device (based on Gazelle trade-in values), or recycle your older and unsalvageable equipment for free, working with partner companies like HP.
David Barbosa is a freelance writer and software developer based in Rhode Island.
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