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How to Dial Up a Recycling Solution for Your Cell Phone

Mark Jeantheau -- All that talk doesn't come cheap for our planet.

Would you care to offer an opinion on what a person should do with his obsolete cell phone? Now, now... We don't want to hear about what you thought that guy who was talking on his cell phone during the movie should do with it... The bad manners of a few people aside, cell phones do pose a significant waste disposal problem for society.

INFORM, an environmental research organization partly funded by the EPA, has estimated that cell phones are typically used only for about 18 months before being replaced. Calling plans are frequently packaged with free or low-cost cell phones, which often makes keeping your current phone economically disadvantageous. Thus, many cell phones face their demise before they have become technologically obsolete, and the waste stream gets not only the cell phones that are truly unusable, but also those that are simply no longer the best deal for the owner.

As of 2001 (the last year figures were available), there were 129 million cell phone users in the US, with 400 million users worldwide. In the coming years, as population and market penetration for cell phones both increase, the number of cell phones destined for the waste stream will continue rising. With such a short average lifespan for each cell phone, it's easy to perceive the magnitude of the cell phone disposal problem. INFORM estimates that by 2005, nearly 130 million cell phones will be discarded every year in the United States.

How does this affect the environment? In addition to the volume of landfill space that cell phones could take up, they also contain toxic chemicals such as:

-- arsenic (used in some semiconductors)
-- brominated compounds (used as flame retardants)
-- lead (used in the solder that attaches components to circuit boards).

These and other cell-phone toxins enter the environment when discarded cell phones are incinerated or when rainwater leaches the materials out of landfilled phones. Many of the toxic compounds in cell phones are found on the EPA's list of "persistent, bioaccumulative, and toxic chemicals." EPA warns that these substances can cause a range of adverse human health effects, including damage to the nervous system, reproductive and developmental problems, and cancer. Eek! Call a doctor!

So, what is a highly mobile, well-connected cell-phone lover to do with a phone they no longer need?

Well, if you could go back in time, you could reconsider the waste issue when evaluating your current cellular-service package. True, you can't do that; but here in the present, you can include the disposal issue when considering whether or not to renew your current plan or go with a new one. If your phone still works fine, choosing a plan that allows you to keep it is the best option from an environmental standpoint. If you do decide you want a new phone, you can still take the waste issue into account to avoid finding yourself in the same situation a year later. Don't accept a plan where the economically intelligent thing to do again will be to throw away a perfectly functioning phone.

Inevitably, at some point you will probably have a still-working but money-stupid cell phone on your hands. If so, you may be able to give it back to the manufacturer for reuse or recycling. Two major cell phone manufacturers, Nokia and Motorola, offer take-back programs. Or you can donate your phone to certain charitable organizations that can put them to good use. Two such organizations are:

-- Collective Good (http://www.collectivegood.com)
-- Donate A Phone (http://www.wirelessfoundation.org/DonateaPhone/index.cfm)

There are other donation options, and new ones are likely to come up in the future. To find out how else you might find a good home for your old cell phone, or to figure out how to just recycle it, visit:

-- The Wireless Foundation (http://www.wirelessfoundation.org/)
-- The cell phone industry's recycling site (http://www.recyclewirelessphones.com/).

In grocery stores and restaurants, in traffic, and even sometimes while sitting on the can, cell phones are becoming an essential part of an efficient lifestyle for many people. Only you can prevent the flushing of perfectly good cell phones!

Finally, we just want to mention that it's not true that our cell phone has the president on speed-dial #1. We did for a while, but the Secret Service made it clear that our "ideas for putting more humor into governance" were not welcome.

Mark is a writer, financial analyst, web developer, environmentalist, and, as necessary, chef and janitor. Grinning Planet is an expression of Mark's enthusiasm for all things humorous and green, as well as a psychotic desire to work himself half-to-death. Hobbies include health foods, music, getting frustrated over politics, and occasionally lecturing the TV set on how uncreative it is. For jokes, cartoons, and more great environmental information, visit http://www.grinningplanet.com.

© 2004 Mark Jeantheau

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