EPA seeks new life for old cell phones

The EPA is launching a public education campaign aimed at getting consumers to recycle their old phones.

The way the Environmental Protection Agency sees it, one discarded cell phone is like one vote: on its own, it cannot do much harm or good, but the cumulative effect can pack a wallop.

So on Tuesday, the EPA, in partnership with many retailers, manufacturers and service providers, will introduce a public education campaign aimed at getting consumers to recycle those phones.

By the agency's reckoning, as many as 150 million cell phones are taken out of service each year. The phones contain metals, plastics, glass, and chemicals, all of which require energy to mine and make, and many of which could be hazardous if they end up in landfills and leach into the ground. Moreover, many old cell phones still work and can be donated to charities or distributed to poor people.

"There are significant environmental and energy benefits to getting these phones back into the product stream," said Matt Hale, the director of the agency's office of solid waste.

The $175,000 campaign--"Recycle Your Cell phone. It's an Easy Call"--will rely heavily on public service announcements, particularly in lifestyle and technology magazines read by the 18- to 34-year-olds who trade up to new cell phones most often. The ads will stress environmental and social reasons for recycling. The agency also plans to release a podcast in which recycling specialists elaborate on their methodologies.

The EPA said it would schedule several cell phone collections in 2008 and would post a searchable list of cell phone drop-off centers on Web sites, including EPA.gov. It will also distribute posters with the "It's an easy call" tagline to partners, to post over drop-off bins.

"Our key role is to get the message out, that recycling cell phones is easy and convenient," said Hale, who estimates that 20 percent of unwanted cell phones are recycled or reused each year.

This is not the EPA's first stab at tackling electronic waste. In 2003 the agency inaugurated "Plug Into eCycling," a program to encourage reuse and recycling of computers, television sets and other large electronic items.

Until recently cell phones, which contain smaller amounts of metals and chemicals than the larger items, seemed less troublesome. But now their sheer volume poses problems. According to Sprint Nextel, there are more than 240 million wireless subscribers in the United States alone.

Eleven companies--AT&T, Best Buy, LG Electronics, Motorola, Nokia, Office Depot, Samsung, Sony Ericsson, Sprint, Staples and T-Mobile--are partners in the campaign. Each has promised to collect phones and hold recycling events.

In fact, many already do so. Mark F. Buckley, vice president for environmental affairs at Staples, said the retailer recycled more than 31,600 cell phones and hand-held devices in 2006. That number was sure to rise, he said, as cell phones continued to supplant landlines, and as the EPA continued to publicize recycling issues.

"Each partner will still have its own program," Buckley said, "but EPA is providing a standardized message to consumers."

Sprint has two cell phone recycling programs. The Sprint Buyback Program lets customers swap old phones for a credit of up to $50 on their bills. Sprint Project Connect, a philanthropic program, accepts phones from customers of any carrier.

The phones that cannot be reused are stripped of parts, and the shells sold to a recycler who extracts metals. Sprint subtracts its costs and donates what is left to a program that promotes Internet safety for children.

According to Darren D. Beck, the Sprint manager who runs Project Connect, Sprint has recycled more than 7 million phones since 2001, and it has donated more than $4.5 million to charity. Like Buckley, he expects that the EPA campaign will increase those numbers.

"It adds awareness and convenience," he said. "If the Verizon store is down the block, our customers will now know that they can drop phones off there."

Environmental groups applaud the program, as far as it goes. Perhaps unsurprisingly, they want the EPA to regulate as well as cajole.

"Cell phones are just the tip of the electronic waste iceberg now, but they could become a massive environmental problem," said Beth Trask, manager for corporate partnerships at Environmental Defense. "Voluntary action and education can help prevent that, but we need regulation too. We really need it all."

Featured Video