Engaging Journeys, Engaged Journalism

Hello? Planet of Lost Cell Phones?

Rethinking our love ’em and leave ’em attitude toward cell phones

Ah, the ubiquitous cell phone. So versatile. So indispensable. So short-lived. We make 1 billion of them every year because we can’t live without them, yet we cast them aside every 18 months on average. They collect in heaps and shipping containers around the world, their once-coveted designs and features more irrelevant than last month’s news. Why such a shabby end for this marvel of convenience?

Cell phones are the poster children for products with illogical life cycles. They lead fabulous development lives and arrive on the scene like film stars. Everyone wants to be seen with one and is happy to pay for the privilege. About 6 billion phones now ride about in humans’ pockets and carryalls (and there are 7.1 billion of us walking around). They are, after all, amazing, useful objects, lending their glamour to our humdrum selves. Sadly, though, they are vulnerable to a fatal affliction: the human attention span. They are anticipated, adored, and abandoned in an apparently endless cycle. It’s a significant quality flaw in the production process.

We've heard the call of cell phones . . .(photo by Josh Self)

We’ve heard the call of cell phones . . . (photo by Josh Self)

Since we can’t and won’t do without our phones (at least until newer versions upstage them), it follows that we’ll continue to abandon them, and they will continue to accumulate as we dig up the planet’s entire hoard of gold and other minerals needed for their manufacture. In the U.S. neck of the woods, mobile devices outnumber the population. From a recycling perspective, that represents about 72,000 tons of phones in use, of which some 20,000 tons get recycled annually.

We’re in a love affair with a potentially tragic ending, but it doesn’t have to be that way. It’s in our best interests to figure out and implement a saner product life cycle for these items we value so highly for such a short time. Otherwise we’re engineering our future disappointment and throwing away money and other valuable resources in the bargain.

Partly due to their small size and improvements in technology, cell phones don’t leave quite the dismaying environmental footprint as other, especially older, electronic devices. The guilty image we all harbor of children squatting in a toxic puddle, fiddling with a square of vaguely recognizable circuitry while smoke from burning plastic wafts skyward behind them, doesn’t totally apply to phones. We’re paying a bit more attention to their recycling or reuse, and although we’ve yet to hit on the ideal end-of-life process, we’ve at least recognized that it’s a kaizen event increasingly worth pursuing. The only question is how.

. . . and we have answered. (photo by KX Studio)

. . . and we have answered. (photo by KX Studio)

Planet of Lost Phones

Various recycling strategies are in use globally. When the love affair sours between a cell phone and its user, it usually enters a cast-off purgatory that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) characterizes as “storage”—neither used nor recycled. Most phones wait out this period in someone’s drawer (raise your hand if this applies to you). Once they begin to move, some do so via voluntary take-back programs established by manufacturers. Eventually, phones land at recycling centers or landfills, minus the few that enjoy a brisk second life as a resale, mainly those returned on warranty.

We take our cell phones everywhere . . . (photo by Mark Nye)

Recycled phones are sorted and stockpiled according to potential value. Some will be sold as-is to secondhand retailers, who in turn offload them in job lots of many thousands. Some of those head to other countries to be repaired and resold.

Phones that no longer work might be sold to reclamation companies like Belgium-based Umicore or Japan’s Dowa Eco-System. These outfits are equipped with giant smelters, vats of electrocuted acid, and particulate-filtering smokestacks to extract precious metals and sell them to the jewelry industry or back into the electronics pipeline. A cell phone contains about a dollar’s worth of precious metals, mostly gold—the “green gold” of recycling parlance—but this small sum adds up. Dowa Eco-System produces an estimated $5–8 million in gold bars per month through its alchemical process.

. . . except to the recycling center. (photo by ario)

. . . except to the recycling center. (photo by ario)

Other DOA phones are destined for landfills; in the U.S. at least these are regulated disposal sites that theoretically prevent as much toxic waste as possible from leaching into the environment. Many phones leave our shores, heading for landfills overseas, where regulation can vary from spotty to nonexistent. The EPA declines to speculate about exact figures, but it did, in response to the National Strategy for Electronics Stewardship, fund a 2013 investigative study by MIT as part of the StEP initiative, a partnership of UN organizations, industry, government, the science sector, and others. The study estimates that 8.5 percent of all electronic waste generated in the United States is exported to other countries. Cell phones would make up a small but growing portion of that.

WEEE the People: Legislating for Change

Europe’s 2003 Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment Directive (WEEE) imposes on manufacturers or distributors the responsibility for properly disposing their electrical and electronic equipment, a tactic from which the United States has so far shied away. A Senate bill originally introduced in 2011, the Responsible Electronics Recycling Act, proposes regulating the shadier exports of electronic waste and creating reclamation centers here, but it was last seen in 2014, dead in committee.

Surely WEEE can do better. (photo by Gwyneth Anne Bronwynne Jones)

Surely WEEE can do better. (photo by Gwyneth Anne Bronwynne Jones)

WEEE has undergone several revisions to make it more effective, and some companies have responded to it in positive ways. The European Recycling Platform (ERP) was established by Braun, Electrolux, Sony, and HP to abide by the WEEE directive in the most cost-effective way possible. Organizations can become members (there are 2,500 now worldwide) and, for a per-ton fee, use one of ERP’s facilities to recycle their electronic waste in compliance with the directive. ERP currently operates in 40 countries.

So although the state of play in terms recycling efforts might seem discouraging, it could be—and has been—worse. Awareness of the problematic end game for phones is growing, but that doesn’t mean someone else will ensure our electronic BFFs are properly laid to rest.

What our phones have given us in convenience, speed, and innovation, we continue to throw away through negligent follow-through. We should take action at whatever place in the communication stream we find ourselves. Don’t keep last year’s model in a drawer. Pester workplaces to put recycling protocols in place. Push our leaders to lead in this and other recycling areas. And think twice before selling used phones to companies with questionable logos.

The initial image for this story, of cell phone covers for sale on New York's Canal Street, is by Eric Parker. Cell Phone Covers - D7K 2278 ep Canal Street, New York, 2012

The initial image for this story, of cell phone covers for sale on New York’s Canal Street, is by Eric Parker.

What do you think? Let us know by sending a letter (a.k.a. email). Send your comments to editor@uptheroad.org. Please include a phone number in case we need to chat.

Taran March is editorial director at Northern California’s own Quality Digest magazine. A 25-year veteran of publishing, March has written and edited for newspapers, magazines, book publishers, and universities. When not plotting the course of Quality Digest Daily with the team, she usually can be found clicking around the Internet in search of news and clues to the human condition.

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