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The Secret Life Of Cell Phones

Green technology isn't exactly filled with tales of heart-stopping adventure and miscreant behavior, but a new series of environmental videos sure makes it sound that way.

Cora Nucci

January 25, 2008

3 Min Read

Green technology isn't exactly filled with tales of heart-stopping adventure and miscreant behavior, but a new series of environmental videos sure makes it sound that way.The Secret Life series promises to "trace the environmental impacts" of common products and technology. The premiere video, "The Secret Life of Cell Phones," does just that in under five minutes. Secret Life is a project of Inform, a New York organization with a mission to "educate the public about the effects of human activity on the environment and public health."

There two kinds of cell phone consumers in this country. In the first group are the hip folks. They want the latest slick smartphones, or the latest blingy smartphones as soon as they can get their hands on them.

And there are the rest of us, who are forced into cell phone replacement by need, rather than want. We run them over with our cars, leave them in taxi cabs, drown them in washing machines, and cook them in clothes dryers. Sometimes cell phones just stop working on their own. Just as the warranty expires.

At some point or another -- and it averages out to around every 18 months, according to Inform -- the average American gets a new mobile phone and pitches the old one.

With the current base of 250 million wireless subscribers churning through new cell phones at the rate of once every 18 months, the U.S. is replacing upwards of 150 million mobile handsets a year.

But where do the old ones go? That's what's explained and shown in the video. Many go into the trash, and on to incinerators or landfills, where they leach toxic substances into the environment.

Cell phones can be collected and recycled. It's not clear how widespread the practice is in the United States, but judging by street interviews in the video, not very. What percentage of U.S. cell phones are recycled? The video doesn't say.

Anyway, some collected mobile phones are refurbished, purged of personal data, upgraded for re-use, and sent to warranty repair programs in the United States. Alas, we're not told how many.

The rest of the collected phones are shipped overseas.

If they aren't reusable, phones can be sent to a smelter, where precious metals (gold and silver) can be recaptured. There's enough gold in 200 cell phones to make a gold ring, according to the video. That presumably means less mining, less environmental damage, and less consumption of resources.

The goal is a "closed-loop pattern" of cell phone consumption, says Inform senior fellow Bette Fishbein.

The five-minute video is worth viewing, despite a few spots where more stats would have made its message stronger. For more info, take a look at the FAQs, and think about recycling your cell phone next time your replace it.

Cell Phone Recycling Resources:

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