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Cell Phone Recycling: Reduce, Reuse and Recycle Your Way to a Greener Earth

Cell Phone Waste


Quick: What’s the smallest object you can name that can bring serious damage to the world at large?


The answer to this question may be right in your pocket. Without you knowing it, your, innocent-looking cell phone is a few years away from poisoning the Earth and future generations.

Studies have repeatedly shown the fast growth of cell phone users in the world and in the United States. Back in 1985, there were about 340,000 mobile phone subscribers in the U.S. alone. After 6 years, that number ballooned significantly to 128 million American users. By 2007, about 1,021.6 million cell phones were sold all over the world. Today, there are more cell phones manufactured than there are babies born.

Indeed, this clearly shows technological progress at its finest. But while we humans rejoice over the milestones that cell phones create with new mobile technology, Mother Earth suffers.


  • About 63% of all the cell phones sold in 2007 were replacements for old or broken models.
  • Only 3% of all these replaced phones were recycled that year.


With the number of cell phone replacements growing larger than ever, we are left with little space to accommodate the additional waste retired cell phones bring.
Just how much waste do cell phones create? Deloitte, a financial firm, predicted that by the end of this year, the amount of waste cell phones produce could fill 21 Boeing 747 aircrafts. Inform, Inc., a New York based non-profit organization predicted that the amount of cell phone waste humans generate will surpass the waste coming from desktop computers.

Not only are old cell phones taking up a huge chunk of the landfill space in the U.S., their by-products are also generating a significant amount of harmful waste that could lead to the deaths of hundreds of people. The Plasma Institute reported that a cell phone has an average life span of two years, which compared to other types of waste, makes it more hazardous.

Learn more about cell phone waste:



Reduce the Amount of Cell Phone Waste

Cell phones are one of the most common types of e-waste or electronic waste. But what makes them more harmful than most types of discarded electronics is that almost all phones are made up of 40% metal and 40% plastic. In the metals alone, more than 10 types of toxic chemicals can be found. The most common types of chemicals found in cell phones are lead, tin, iron, copper, beryllium, nickel and zinc. Once these heavy metals accumulate in landfills and seep into the soil, they could contaminate water resources and expose humans to deadly diseases.


Take lead for example. Lead is often found in solders and plastics and is also often present in glass components like LCD screens as well as cell phone batteries. While it may seem that the lead content in cell phones is safe enough for usage, it remains to be one of the world’s leading threats to the environment and public health. It ranked first in the US EPA’S Persistent Bioaccumulative and Toxic Chemicals list of hazardous chemicals. In Nigeria, almost 400 children died because of lead poisoning in 2010. Lead is also linked with cancer and other complications in the kidneys, central nervous system and immune system. Inform, Inc. predicted that years from now, the United States will be able to stockpile 500 million discarded cell phones in the landfills which could result in 312,000 pounds of lead that could leach into groundwater sources.


By far, the best solution to alleviating cell phone waste is refurbishing old electronics and recycling them. Since cell phones, like computers and laptops, are made with different components that can be taken apart, recycling and refurbishing a cell phone will not only decrease the number of cell phones in landfills, it will also save significant resources for future components.


Learn more about the types of  e-waste:


  • Environmental Hazard Lists - A list of Persistent, Bioaccumulative, and Toxic Chemicals (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency)
  • Electronic Waste - A page that tackles about some metals found in electronics.
  • Manage e-waste - An article about the proper way of disposing electronic product.


Cell Phone Reuse

Unlike most methods of recycling, cell phone reuse is more rampant in the United Sates. Springer reports that almost 65% of all cell phones that are in the end-of-life stage are recovered for reuse in the U.S. The most common type of reuse is cell phone refurbishment.


In cell phone refurbishment, third party recyclers help individual users and companies collect devices that are in the end-of-life stage or are being replaced. The devices are then shipped to an inspection facility where the devices are examined in terms of functionality and cosmetic condition. Most refurbishing companies also pay for the cell phones based on the functional and cosmetic value of the devices. These devices are then reprocessed, taken apart and are often reused or remanufactured to maximize the cell phone’s value.

Cell Phone Recycling


Apart from reusing old cell phone components, the amount of cell phone waste can also be diminished effectively though cell phone recycling. Unlike cell phone reuse (where, technically, the cell phone parts are repaired and refurbished to make it usable again), cell phone recycling involves more complex solutions to the growing e-waste problem.

In cell phone recycling, discarded mobile phones are collected by third party recycling companies and are assessed thoroughly. The key to cell phone recycling is knowing the material composition of a certain handset to know its recycling potential. A cell phone’s recycling potential usually depends on the amount of metal it contains. Above all other kinds of materials used in manufacturing a handset, metals are a major concern of recyclers mainly because they pose the greatest risk to the environment.

Cell phone recycling is currently focused only on harvesting metals from electronic wastes as they are the most profitable materials to be found. Cell phones are usually made up of heavy metals like lead, nickel, chromium, copper gold and platinum. Springers reported that cell phone recyclers recover 48% to 64% of the metal components (the majority being copper) from cell phones.

Aside from copper, recyclers also get gold from processors and chips. 70% of the revenue generated from electronics recycling came from gold recovered from discarded cell phones. After assessing and separating metal components, recycled cell phones are sent to metal smelters and refiners. The recovered metals will then re-enter the market to be used for other purposes.


Learn more about recycling:


  • Cell phone recycling - An article that delves into the growth of cell phone recycling.
  • The Life Cycle of a Cell Phone - An instructional PDF file that discusses about the life cycle of a product, specifically cell phone.
  • What To Do About E-Waste - A helpful how-to guide for keeping your computers, cell phones and other used electronics out of landfills.
  • Pollution Prevention - A page about responsibly recycling electronics.
  • Electronics Recycling - a page about electronics recycling


Consumer Alert: How to Dispose of Your Cell Phone Properly


While third party refurbishing companies and recyclers have roles to play in cell phone reuse and recycling, cell phone users actually play the major part in the environmental ordeal against cell phone waste. Aside from responsible usage, cell phone owners are also subjected to the responsible disposal of their gadgets. The Federal Trade Commission encourages individuals as well as large corporations to properly dispose of their personal or company cell phones.

Some of the disposal options the FTC included on their website are:



The United States Environmental Protection Agency also urges cell phone owners to consider upgrading their gadgets rather than replacing them with new ones. Not only is this safer than most methods, it’s also more cost effective.  The EPA website also lists a number of organizations and companies that have buyback programs for mobile phones, personal computers and televisions.

But regardless of how you want to dispose of your cell phone, both the FTC and EPA prompts cell phone users to do a two important things before selling or disposing of their cell phones. First, cell phone users are reminded to remove all the batteries from the cell phone because batteries have a different recycling process and need to be recycled separately.

Second, cell phone users are also reminded to always permanently delete personal information from cell phones. While it may seem enough to delete all the files, remove all memory cards and encrypt other information on your cell phone before selling or recycling it, the FTC strongly urges people to find ways to permanently delete all kinds of files on the phone. This is because most files are actually recoverable on any kind of mobile devices, making cell phone users who sell and recycle handsets more susceptible to identity theft and other fraud crimes.

It is important as well for cell phone users to find the right organization or company to entrust their handsets to. Each state has a Department of Natural Resources with more information on where to recycle cell phones. These offices also have a list of all the registered recyclers in the area that will help individuals and organizations find good places for electronics recycling. Users may also check for schools, nursing homes and other organizations that will accept donated electronics.

Cell Phone Recycling Centers and Programs

With over 100 to 125 million cell phones waiting to be discarded every year, Americans are now in great danger of facing insurmountable cell phone waste that will be hazardous to all living things in the near future. This is why the United States government has encouraged local administration to find safe cell phone disposal options.

In Missouri, all electronic consumers are covered under the Electronics Scrap Management Rule which requires all electronics manufacturers to recover and recycle all electronic devices bought after July 1, 2010. These services are free of charge to all consumers who bought their device from companies under the Registered Computer Equipment Manufacturers List.

New Yorkers who wish to recycle their cell phones can also have their handsets reused or recycled through their mobile carriers. Telephone service providers are required to accept up to 10 cell phones from each subscriber for recycling under the New York State Wireless Recycling Act which was made effective January 1, 2007. There are also charity programs in New York like Cell Phones for Soldiers that aims to collect old cell phones for recycling. The money raised from recycled old phones will be used to purchase calling cards for American soldiers abroad. The New York City local government also has charity programs like The Mayor’s Office to Combat Domestic Violence which encourages people to donate old cell phones to be recycled for the benefit of victims of domestic violence.

The Grand Valley State University Women’s Center in Michigan also promotes cell phone recycling through a program called Cell Phone Donation. The advocacy group encourages people to drop off their unwanted handsets in recycling bins around the campus or to mail old cell phones to the Women’s Center office. The collected cell phones are then forwarded to recyclers and the funds raised are donated to local non-profit organizations for women around the state.

Meanwhile, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the nearby community send their old cell phones to the Service Office for donation. The proceeds of the donations are given to the Community Advocacy Program. The CAP provides support, counseling and crisis intervention to victims of domestic violence in Boston, Massachusetts.

In Idaho, households are allowed to dispose of their electronics in municipal solid waste landfills provided that the devices are safe for disposal. Businesses are required to calculate their hazardous waste generation before being permitted to dispose of their electronics. Students of Boise State University and the University of Idaho also have their own cell phone recycling program in partnership with Verizon that supports the prevention of domestic violence in the community.


Additional resources:

Benefits of Cell Phone Recycling

Aside from averting the environmental hazards that cell phone waste creates, cell phone recycling has a lot of benefits. First, by reducing the amount of cell phone waste in the country, people can prevent the leaching and release of hazardous biochemical into the ecosystem that may soon destroy the earth’s natural resources. This occurrence would otherwise pose great threats to human health.

Another great benefit of recycling old cell phones is that it helps conserve raw materials used for creating other products. Studies show that for every one million recycled cell phones, we can get 75 pounds of gold, 772 pounds if silver and 35,274 pounds of copper; materials that are hard to mine and extract from the earth’s natural resources but are readily present in old discarded cell phones.

Recycling cell phones also help in conserving energy. For every cell phone recycled, people can get enough power to keep a laptop running for 44 hours. Recycling 130 million cell phones that are discarded annually in the United States could generate energy to power more than 24,000 houses for one whole year.

On a personal level, individuals who reuse or recycle their old and unwanted cell phones can even gain financial returns for their discarded devices. There are lots of recycling companies that pay for old cell phones and also offer free shipping and handling services.


Further reading about the benefits of cell phone recycling:


Go Green With Cell Phones


Aside from recycling as a means of reducing cell phone waste, people are also encouraged to support and use environmentally friendly products. Electronic manufacturers, through the years, have acknowledged the need for environmentally healthy products and have created cell phones that help in conserving energy and natural resources.

Samsung, a Korean electronics company, created a solar powered cell phone in 2009 called the Blue Earth Phone. It was made with recycled plastics like water bottles and had a solar panel that provided four hours of talk time after a full 10 to 14 hours of charging. And while the specs aren’t as impressive as current cell phone models, it is still one of a kind as it featured toxin-free peripherals as well. Digicel also created a solar powered cell phone in the same year and made it available to countries in the Caribbean, Central America and South Pacific.

Sony Ericsson also released an eco-friendly cell phone called GreenHeart which was considered an entry level 3G phone that was very environmentally healthy. It was made with 50% recycled plastic and had eco-themed apps. Samsung also came up with Restore, a cell phone manufactured with 77% recycled materials including corn-based bioplastic and an eco-friendly outer casing.

Aside from eco-friendly manufactured cell phones, we have also seen a lot of refurbished and reused cell phones in the market that are sold for reduced prices. Manufacturers are also starting to practice company reliability where they create easy to fix and more durable cell phone models. A lot of mobile carriers and electronics companies now also offer free repair services so that users will be motivated to spend less on replacement phones.

There are hundreds of other ways to help reduce cell phone waste and help the earth in the process. But all of this comes down to the hands of environmentally responsible users. Are you one of them?


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