Why are Cell Phone Recycling Rates So Low?

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According to the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) latest numbers, only 10% of unwanted cell phones are recycled each year. A 2008 survey released by Nokia suggests an even lower number. The worldwide leader in cell phone sales interviewed 6,500 people in 13 countries and found that only 3% recycled old devices.

If there is good news from the survey, it’s that respondents tossed only 4% of old devices in landfills, with 44% sitting in drawers unused, and the rest sold on the secondary market or passed along to friends and family.

What’s in a Cell Phone?
Cell phones contain toxic materials like lead, mercury and cadmium. In addition, they contain other substances commonly referred to by chemists as “persistent, bioaccumulative, and toxic chemicals.” Toss a cell phone in a landfill or incinerator, and these hazardous materials make their way into the environment where studies show they can cause reproductive, nervous and developmental disorders, and even cancer.

Cell phones also contain precious metals, like gold, silver and platinum, cell phone chargers contain copper – all of which are reusable. Each old cell phone contains roughly enough of these materials for a new cell phone or smartphone, saving the cost, energy and resources associated with mining and processing new metals. The EPA estimates that if U.S. consumers recycled the more than 100 million cell phones they no longer use annually, they would save enough energy to power 18,500 homes for a year.

Cell Phone Life Cycle

Source: EPA

Why so Low?
Doug Washburn, an analyst with Forrester Research, who describes the recycling rates for obsolete cell phones as “atrocious,” says there are multiple reasons cell phone recycling rates are so low.

“There isn’t that level of awareness to recycle mobile devices like there is for glass bottles, aluminum cans, plastics, or paper. And even if the consumer is aware, their isn’t the convenient equivalent of a blue recycling bin in your home or office picked up on your behalf,” he said.

He later added, “And unlike a TV, PC or monitor, mobile devices are small and can be stored in an office drawer or a shoe box in the basement. So it’s easier to not do the right thing and it’s not really going to clutter up your life.”

Carriers Should Lead the Way
Washburn thinks the carriers, retailers, and manufacturers can all play a role in bumping up mobile device recycling rates.

“The handset manufactures can help by designing for recyclability, but also incorporating fewer parts and greener parts into the device coupled with greener manufacturing and supply chain processes,” he said. “But retailers, like Best Buy, are also participating by offering customers recycling drop off points in their stores regardless of where the device was originally bought.” However, the carriers can have the biggest impact, because according to Washburn, “they own the ongoing customer billing and service relationship.”

SmartXchangeOne company looking to enable carriers in that regard is TMNG Global with its SmartXChange program, which aids operators by tracking subscriber behavior and alerting carriers when a subscriber may have an unwanted or unused handset, like when the subscriber activates a new device. The carrier can then set up and incentive program to reacquire the unused handset, a process SmartXchange manages. This works from a business sense because operators can then use the devices for resell opportunities in developing markets where there is high demand for lower-end cell phones.

It also allows the carriers to promote their green values, which is an opportunity too many are missing, as Sally Celmer, Director of Product Management for TMNG Global, explained.

“It’s a lost opportunity. You can go to AT&T, Verizon and Sprint, they all have cell phone recycling programs, and they all are taking that green approach and initiative,” she said. “But it’s not proactive. You almost have to look for it.” She later added, “We are enabling the operators to be more proactive.”

GazelleFor consumers taking the proactive approach, Washburn claims there is plenty of room for new players in the secondary market. Gazelle.com is a recycling site that specifically targets mobile devices. The Gazelle founders claim they want “to change the world – one cell phone, one laptop, one iPod at a time” through “ReCommerce.”

Basically, they buy unwanted devices directly from consumers and sell through a variety of retail and wholesale outlets, promoting reuse before resorting to recycling. They pay for shipping, and “even send you the box.”

Raise the Rate
According to Washburn, there a number of small things the retailers and carriers can do to promote recycling and raise the overall rate to more than 10%. These include:

  • Training sales staff to inform customers of recycling options and how to recycle devices.
  • Market recycling initiatives in monthly statements or weekly circulars.
  • Provide more financial incentives.
  • Provide a pre-paid envelope to mail old phones back for recycling.
  • Allow customers to print prepaid postage stamps to mail old devices to recycling centers.




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