Don't Hold The Phone, And Other Recycling Incentives

My BlackBerry went for a swim the other day. I'm too embarrassed to tell you where, save to say that I find myself multitasking these days in the oddest places. I will say that when it sank beneath the surface, its lights flickered like those of the doomed Titanic. That meant, aside from having an intense desire to boil my hand, I had to get a new BlackBerry and, yes, recycle the old one.

Kevin Ferguson, Contributor

December 2, 2008

3 Min Read

My BlackBerry went for a swim the other day. I'm too embarrassed to tell you where, save to say that I find myself multitasking these days in the oddest places. I will say that when it sank beneath the surface, its lights flickered like those of the doomed Titanic. That meant, aside from having an intense desire to boil my hand, I had to get a new BlackBerry and, yes, recycle the old one.On a bright note, my uncharacteristically prescient decision to buy an insurance policy meant that I had to recycle the old one by way of the insurer. I'm not sure what I would have done with it otherwise. I have a drawer full of used cell phones that I keep meaning to recycle, including one so old that it's the size and weight of a small dog. I might have buried this one in the backyard.

Recycling the BlackBerry put me, unfortunately, in the minority. Relatively few cell phones are recycled: The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency puts the figure at about 20%; ABI Research says that less than 5% of the annual worldwide volume of handsets shipped come back through recycling or ethical disposal programs. Nokia, which conducted its own global survey in July, found that only 3% recycle their phones. Whatever number you choose, it means tens of thousands of tons of raw materials needlessly end up in landfills -- or down the drain.

ABI Research suggests in a new report that that may not change anytime soon. That's because while "most mobile handset vendors acknowledge public pressure to create environmentally sound products. … Faced with the economic realities of 'going green' however, their appetite for creating biodegradable and recyclable products from sustainable resources often fades like a wireless signal in an underground parking lot."

ABI notes some exceptions, among them Nokia, which has widely received kudos for its environmental practices. Among them is acknowledgement from Greenpeace, which ranks Nokia as No. 1 in its annual Guide to Greener Electronics:

Nokia stays in 1st place with a total score of 6.9, dropping slightly from 7. Although its score for its support of Individual Producer Responsibility has dropped, Nokia now scores maximum points for its comprehensive voluntary take-back program, which spans 124 countries providing almost 5000 collection points for end-of-life mobile phones. However, its recycling rate of 3-5% is very poor, and more information is needed on how Nokia calculates these figures. Nokia scores very well on toxic chemical issues, launching new models free of PVC since the end of 2005 and aiming to have all new models free of brominated flame retardants and antimony trioxide by the end of 2009. Nokia's energy score is boosted by sourcing 25% of its total energy needs from renewable sources in 2007 and by having a target to increase use of renewable energy to 50% by 2010. Nokia commits to reduce its energy use but loses a point for not providing a commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Top marks (doubled) are given for product energy efficiency as all its mobile phone chargers exceed the Energy Star requirements by 30-90%.

No doubt the recycling numbers will climb. Mobile phone recycling is getting easier and more obvious, thanks to Nokia and a host of national retails and vendors.

State and local legislation, which has been very spotty, should help, too. Illinois, whose e-waste law was signed in September and enters into force in January 2010, became the latest to include mobile phones as e-waste. But it remains one of only a handful of states.

Every little bit helps, though. Especially for busy multitaskers.

Coming soon: Why my mobile phone insurer has banned me from purchasing future policies.

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