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Cell phone recycling for cash a win-win, or is it?

Phone recycling fundraisers seem like a win-win proposition. But some charity watchdogs caution that  there are potential downsides. contributor Dawn Stover reports.
Image: Cell phones to be recycled
A heap of cell phones awaits recycling at ReCellular in Dexter, Mich. The company says it collects 75,000 used phones a week, most collected in charity fundraisers, and refurbishes them for sale around the world. Paul Sancya / AP file
/ Source: Special to

When the Hunting Park Christian Academy asked students and parents to turn in old cellular phones and used inkjet cartridges, the Philadelphia school became one of more than 20,000 organizations that have raised money through recycling programs sponsored by the Dallas-based company EcoPhones. The school earned about $500 last year through the program and continues to benefit from collection boxes at local churches.

“I’m sold on the program,” said Gabriel Wang-Herrera, a former kindergarten teacher who is now the school’s director of development. He said EcoPhones sent him everything he needed to advertise the program and paid for shipping the collected devices.

It seems like a win-win: The recycling programs not only help keep old phones, inkjet cartridges and other electronic devices out of U.S. landfills but also raise funds for schools, churches and community groups.

But charity watchdogs caution that there are potential downsides: Most of the money ends up in the hands of middlemen who resell the devices. And these for-profit companies — including EcoPhones, Phoneraiser, FundingFactory, CollectiveGood, Think Recycle, ReCellular, Cellular Funds and Project KOPEG (Keep Our Planet Earth Green) — are rapidly proliferating, perhaps at the expense of similar nonprofits.

What’s more, U.S. “recycling” programs may end up exporting hazardous waste problems to developing nations ill equipped to deal with them, they say.

Average cell phone lifespan: 18 months
The average American gets a new cell phone every 18 months. The phone that’s replaced is typically in perfect working order but is often simply tossed in a drawer or the garbage can. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that 98 million U.S. cell phones were discarded in 2005, along with hundreds of millions of other electronic products such as computers, TVs and VCRs. Fewer than 20 percent of cell phones were recycled. Many ended up in landfills, where they can release nasty acids and toxic metals.

Consumers who don’t want their phones to end up at the dump have several options: They can return the device to its manufacturer, take it to a recycling center, donate it to a nonprofit or turn it in for cash through one of the many for-profit collection programs. Some of these programs accept phones from individuals, while others work only with groups conducting fundraisers.

Most of the collection companies operate the same way: They provide materials to help the fundraising organization collect phones or other devices and then pay the organization for items that are shipped to them. Some companies are expanding beyond cell phones. For example, EcoPhones now buys used laptops, MP3 music players, digital cameras, handheld GPS devices and DVD movies.

The amount paid to the organization depends on the condition and model number of each device collected. For example, EcoPhones pays as little as 25 cents for some phones, and as much as $300 for others. The average payment is around $3, said Jennifer Parra, a spokesperson for the company.

About 30 percent of the phones shipped to EcoPhones are obsolete, Parra said. They are sent to reclamation plants where precious metals such as gold are extracted, and plastics are melted down for recycling.

Many recycled phones thrown away
The remaining 70 percent of the phones are sold to refurbishing companies, which restore the phones to working order and in turn sell them to retailers. About three-quarters of the refurbished phones end up in Latin America, where they are usually marketed as prepaid (“pay-as-you-go”) phones.

Wang-Herrera said he chose EcoPhones over competitors because of the company’s competitive pricing. Also, he said EcoPhones is “very user-friendly” and responds quickly to e-mailed inquiries.

Some others aren’t so happy with the company. Last year Adam Kalsey, a Cubmaster and blogger in Gold River, Calif., accused EcoPhones of “spamming” Boy Scout leaders whose e-mail addresses are listed on local packs’ Web sites. Parra acknowledged that EcoPhones sends marketing messages to teachers, pastors and others affiliated with schools, churches and community groups, but she said the company gives all recipients a chance to opt out of its mailing list as required by the federal CAN-SPAM Act.

Perhaps a greater concern about recyclers is what happens to the phones they collect. Many end up in developing countries that lack recycling facilities, well-designed landfills or environmental guidelines for the safe handling of hazardous materials, making it highly unlikely that the phones will be safely recycled or properly disposed of. The electronic waste problem has simply been transferred to another time and place, all without violating any international restrictions on the shipment of hazardous waste.

‘Not a particularly philanthropic act’
Some refurbished phones are sold in the U.S. market, which is clearly preferable to burial in the best of landfills. Even so, donors shouldn’t give themselves much credit for parting with a used phone, said Trent Stamp, president of Charity Navigator, a New Jersey watchdog organization that evaluates the financial accountability of charitable organizations.

Donating a phone to a fundraiser is “not a particularly philanthropic act,” Stamp said. As with used-car and clothing donation programs, it’s simply a convenient way to dump your junk, and the charity receives only a small portion of the money changing hands, as the middlemen pocket most of the cash. “The best you can hope for is that a couple of pennies on the back end actually reach your donation organization,” he said.

How can you make sure that your local group receives the most benefit from its fundraising program? Here are a few tips:

  • Seek out partners that are nonprofit organizations rather than for-profit collection companies.
  • Donate only to organizations or companies that have strict “no-landfill” policies guaranteeing that all items collected will be recycled or resold.
  • Look for programs that accept all cell phones regardless of age or condition, rather than those that seek only newer, high-end phones.
  • Don’t be fooled by advertising that promises high prices. Usually these prices only apply to a few phone models that are rarely if ever collected.
  • Choose a program that offers free shipping.

And if you really want to make a difference, consider purchasing a refurbished phone yourself. Service providers such as AT&T and Verizon offer “just like new” phones online, as do many smaller companies. Re-use is a much more efficient way to curtail waste than recycling.