Environmentalists Identify New Menace: Discarded Cellphones
By ANAHAD O'CONNOR
As the nation's fondness for cellphones grows, the environmental effects do,
According to industry figures, cellphone use in the United States has
surged, to more than 128 million subscribers last year from 340,000 in 1985.
Typically, each phone is used for 18 months before being dropped for a newer
That is starting to add up to a huge amount of waste, says Inform, an
environmental organization that issued a report this year on old phones. The
Environmental Protection Agency helped finance the study.
By 2005, the report estimates, 130 million cellphones will be thrown out
each year. Counting the phones, batteries and chargers, that comes to 65,000
tons a year, the report said. Although some phones may just stay unused in
desk drawers, the report said, most will end up in landfills or being
"This is becoming a very serious problem, because the amount of cellphone
waste is growing tremendously," said Eric Most, director of the solid waste
prevention program at Inform. "These chemicals accumulate and persist in the
environment. They get in the plants, soil, water, and then move up the
stream to humans."
The threat of cellphone waste is not restricted to the United States. More
than a billion cellphones are used worldwide, and Japan and several European
countries have started pressuring manufacturers to eliminate toxic
Researchers at Inform say companies can act to eliminate waste by creating
take-back programs that offer discounts on new phones or phone service in
exchange for returned equipment.
"If producers have to take back their cellphones, they have an incentive to
make products that generate less waste and are easier to recycle," said
Bette K. Fishbein, an economist who was lead author of the study. "Australia
has a nationwide take-back program, and Europe is about to mandate that
companies take back their electronics. The same should be done in the U.S."
Some companies, including Verizon and Sprint, do have take-back programs,
but the main industry group, the Cellular Telecommunications and Internet
Association, opposes mandatory programs. Rather than requiring manufacturers
to dispose of old phones, the industry prefers programs in which old phones
are turned over to charities or resold in less developed countries, said
Travis Larson, a spokesman for the group.
Some states have taken small steps to promote reusing cellphones. A
government-financed program in Maryland collects used cellphones that are
recycled or reprogrammed and given to the elderly so they can call 911 in an
"Recovery of cellphones is occurring on a much larger scale in other
countries, often with the cooperation of manufacturers and retailers," the
Environmental Protection Agency said in a statement in August. "E.P.A. is
interested in working to encourage similar developments in the United
The agency is working with Inform on a follow-up study to examine the
effectiveness of reusing and recycling cellphones.
In the meantime, Ms. Fishbein said, American manufacturers should limit
waste by standardizing design elements so consumers have fewer reasons to
buy new phones.
Although manufacturers are working to reduce their use of toxic materials,
they oppose a mandated technical standard, Mr. Larson said.
"If we had had a government standard in the beginning," he said, "we'd still
all be speaking on analog phones. And that means no e-mail, no text
messaging, no Caller ID. Competition equals innovation in this case."