Grappling With Old-Cell-Phone Guilt

July 11, 2012

A few days ago, my six-year-old daughter was rifling through our junk drawer. She was delighted to discover a number of old cell phones, which she promptly used to “call” her ex-boyfriend—supposedly a boy named Jake. (I guess when you’re six, it’s okay for an ex to come before an actual boyfriend.) While it was fun watching her play, it reminded me—guiltily—that my family still had not recycled our old cell phones. From a personal to a global level, it seems that the process of recycling cellular phones—and electronics in general—could stand a lot of improvement.

To me, one should be able to get rid of an old cell phone much the way one disposes of an old mattress: Buy a new one and the retailer offers to take the old one away. Instead, it often falls to the individual consumers to hunt down someone at their local recycling centers, who will hopefully advise them on where they can bring their old cell phones. Alternatively, one could look for a solution online or find someone who is collecting used cell phones for a cause (although this raises security concerns if any of your information is still on the phone).

Even if I find a way to recycle these old phones, it’s likely that only a few parts will be plucked out while the rest is simply discarded. e-Cycle ( notes that only a small percentage of e-waste is sent to recyclers (as little as 11% to 14% in the US). The remainder is often dumped or burned. The US Environmental Protection Agency estimates that 70% to 80% of supposedly reputable electronics-recycling companies in the US are directly or indirectly (through downstream vendors) shipping e-waste into “toxic wastelands” in developing countries.

e-Cycle recommends that organizations and businesses work with a recycler that is e-Stewards-certified (simply visit e-Stewards is a globally recognized electronics-recycling certification. Among other lofty goals, it prohibits the landfilling and incineration of e-waste.

In addition to the proper disposal of electronic waste, many manufacturers are trying to design products that are “greener.” This month, for example, AT&T is launching a fourth-generation (4G) Long-Term Evolution (LTE) smartphone with “sustainable” features. The Samsung Galaxy Exhilarate boasts a rear casing made from 80% recycled (post-consumer waste) material and a low-load, energy-efficient charger. It also is the first 4G LTE smartphone to receive platinum certification from UL Environment, the environment-minded business unit of Underwriters Laboratories (UL).

“Green” requirements can complicate the challenge of juggling size, performance, power, and cost tradeoffs. The Restriction of Hazardous Substances (RoHS) directive, which was passed in 2003, will probably end up being the first of many such “green” mandates. Despite the resulting design pressures, the upshot will be products that are more easily dismantled, recycled, and even reused. After I recycle our old cell phones, I may even go about recycling some other stuff in that junk drawer. Judging by the amount of rubber bands, I could make a decent-sized rubber-band ball for the kids.

Nancy K. Friedrich