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U.K. backs cell phone recyclers

A new environmental scheme aims to reuse or recycle the stockpile of 90 million mobile phones lying unused in the United Kingdom.

The British government lent its support on Tuesday to a new environmental scheme that aims to reuse or recycle the stockpile of 90 million mobile phones lying unused in the United Kingdom--a pile that is growing by up to 15 million per year.

The Fonebak project is the first mobile phone recycling plan to involve all five of the nation's cell phone operators as well as the Dixons Group of retail stores. It claims to benefit both business and the environment and is working to significantly reduce the amount of potentially harmful waste produced by the cell phone industry.

Michael Meacher, minister of state for the environment, hailed Fonebak as a major breakthrough and congratulated the cell phone industry and Shield Environmental, the company behind the plan.

Under the plan, phones, chargers and accessories that can't be reused will be recycled. Rather than simply being thrown into landfill sites, handsets--which include precious metals such as platinum and silver, as well as lithium and in some cases cadmium--are carefully broken down and their constituent parts recovered for later use.

"Fonebak encapsulates everything that the government wants to achieve with industry and the environment. This is exactly what's needed," Meacher said, speaking at a press conference Tuesday morning. "Fonebak so clearly fits with government policy, because it puts the priority on reuse. Reuse is at the top of the environmental league."

Meacher said companies need to lead the way in solving environmental problems such as this, as government agencies lack the flexibility to be of much help. "It's important that industry don't wait for government or laws to fix these issues, as they are often too slow. Companies must be proactive and get on with the job," the minister insisted.

In the U.K., 15 million cell phones are effectively made redundant each year when users upgrade their handsets--which equates to 1,476 tons of potential hazardous waste, said Gordon Shield, chief executive of Shield Environmental. According to estimates, a total of 90 million handsets are lying unused in Great Britain.

"Fonebak enables people to have a mobile phone while also looking after the environment," Shield said.

Shield Environmental, which works on environmental issues with the telecom industry, has been testing the Fonebak scheme for the past 12 months. During this time more than one million phones have been reused, and more than 103 tons of handsets, batteries and accessories have been processed and recycled.

Cell phone users can mail their handsets to Fonebak, and all five mobile operators are expected to provide special postage-paid envelopes to their customers. Handsets can also be dropped off at participating retail stores, including mobile operators' outlets.

Shield said mobile operators are likely to provide incentives--such as reduced prices for new handsets--to encourage people to use the scheme.

However, no cell phone manufacturers have signed up for Fonebak. According to Shield, this is because the manufacturers, suffering from disappointing sales figures, are concerned about the reuse side of the scheme. "We hope they come forward, because reuse is at the heart of our policy," Shield said.

ZDNet UK's Graeme Wearden reported from London.