Image: Cell phones to be recycled
Paul Sancya  /  AP file
Only about 10 percent of cell phones in the United States were recycled in 2007, with many of them being tossed in the trash or stashed away in nooks and crannies around the house. The federal government and wireless carriers are renewing efforts to get users to safely dispose of their cell phones, which contain toxic elements.
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msnbc.com
updated 4/13/2009 8:45:57 AM ET 2009-04-13T12:45:57

Pushed aside for the latest models, many of our old cell phones pile up in drawers, closets, garages and other out-of-the-way places where it’s easy to stash and forget them. Worse, some of them wind up in landfills, where their toxic elements are left to fester and contaminate the environment.

Renewed efforts by government and private industry are underway to get cell phone users to recycle their phones, with only about 10 percent of 140 million phones recycled in 2007, according to the federal Environmental Protection Agency.

The vast remainder was either “stored away … or put in the trash,” said Latisha Petteway, an EPA spokeswoman. “Stored away” would be preferable to “trash,” but Petteway said the EPA does not have a more extensive breakdown to know how many get tossed in the weekly trash pickup, doomed for the dump.

With Earth Day April 22, the agency, wireless carriers and CTIA — the wireless trade industry association — are working together to up the recycling ante. Sprint, for example, has set a goal of collecting 250,000 phones this month, a 25 percent increase over last April, the company says.

Ultimately, Sprint wants to “collect nine phones for reuse and recycling for every 10 phones it sells by 2017, a collection rate of 90 percent,” the company said in a recent news release.

It’s not only old phones or personal digital assistants that need proper disposal; it’s also their batteries, headsets, cases, cables and chargers.

The GSM Association, which represents phone makers and carriers using GSM technology, says that 80 percent of a phone's material can be recycled.

Also, many association members — including AT&T and T-Mobile — recently vowed to standardize chargers by 2012 for most cell phones. Thrown-away chargers generate more than 51,000 tons of waste a year, according to the association.

Gold, platinum and silver and other metals make up about 16 percent of the weight of a “typical” cell phone, the association says, and are extracted if phones can’t be reused or refurbished. Plastic in the phones can be recycled as well.

Lead and cadmium in used cell phones are treated separately for disposal, and are among the elements in phones that can be most toxic to the environment.

Back to square one
Before choosing how or where to dispose of your old phone, make sure you clear the information from it. It will linger, even if the phone doesn’t.

Michigan-based ReCellular, which collected 5.5 million phones in 2008 for reuse and recycling, said it “deleted an average of 5 megabytes of information per handset — removing a total of 10 terabytes of personal contacts, e-mail, photos and financial information from donated phones.”

Doing a “hard reset” on the phone — essentially putting it back to how it was when you first took it out of the box — is a first step. But it may not be the only one you need to take, depending on your model.

Check by going to the manufacturer’s Web site, or using the free Cell Phone Data Eraser program, available through ReCellular’s site.

Many recyclers use what is known as “flashing software” to rid phones of previous information, particularly if they’re going to be sent to a country outside the United States, said Michele Triana of GRC Wireless Recycling, based in Florida.

“When a phone is going to be exported, that phone needs to be reprogrammed with the particular (phone) code for that country,” she said. “Flashing software is what does this. Through the flashing process, all data in a phone is deleted.”

Don’t forget to remove your SIM (“Subscriber Identity Module”) card any time you change phones. If you’re an AT&T or T-Mobile customer, chances are you have such a card. (Phones from Verizon Wireless and Sprint do not use SIM cards).

The little memory chips hold scads of personal information, from your music files to names and addresses to text messages.

Wireless carrier programs
Each of the four major carriers in the United States has its own reuse/recycle effort, and they don’t care where a donated phone comes from, or whether it’s one of their own. Drop-off bins are located in many carriers’ stores.

AT&T, for example, provides free shipping labels for the Cell Phones for Soldiers program, which recycles phones and uses the proceeds to buy phone cards for troops stationed overseas.

The company and Cell Phones for Soldiers recycled more than 2.5 million wireless devices since Earth Day 2008, exceeding their Earth Day 2009 goal by more than 700,000 phones, according to AT&T, which said proceeds generated from recycling since Earth Day 2008 have went to the purchase of more than 250,000 prepaid phone cards for troops.

Sprint offers a buy-back program for its customers and offers up to a $50 credit. It also takes phones from those who aren’t Sprint customers. Net proceeds from the recycled phones go to the company’s “Project Connect,” which funds and promotes “free Internet safety resources for kids, parents and educators.”

T-Mobile’s “Huddle Up” program uses funds from recycled phones and gives grants to organizations that work with children “primarily from single-parent families in high-need, urban communities to positive people, places, and programs,” according to the company.

Verizon Wireless’ HopeLine recycled phone program began in 2001 and is one of the better-known recycling programs. The company takes usable cells and gives them to domestic violence awareness and prevention organizations around the country.

Those phones that can’t be used are sold for parts. In 2008, the HopeLine program collected nearly 1.13 million phones, said Terri Stanton of Verizon Wireless.

A relatively small number of them — nearly 21,000 — were in active service at the end of the year. But Verizon Wireless also gave more than $1.5 million in cash grants to about 350 domestic awareness/prevention groups from phones that were recycled or refurbished, she said.

Since the HopeLine recycling program began in 2001, she said, more than 5.6 million cell phones have been collected and more than 1 million cell phones have been “properly disposed of … in an environmentally sound way.”

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