Because hundreds of millions of new cell phones are sold every year just in the U.S., and only a small percentage of the old ones ever make it to a proper recycling facility, our modern mobile lifestyle is creating a huge e-waste problem.
According to a recent study from the CDC that tracked the demographics of landline phone usage (the study was designed to help the organization adapt its data collection programs), over half of the households in the U.S. either don’t use their landline for phone calls, or don’t have one to begin with.
This trend of going wireless for phone service is certainly handy for the users, but if those figures from the CDC are accurate, they could spell an increasing problem for e-waste disposal in this country (and the rest of the world), because the average replacement/upgrade interval is just 18 months, which adds up to a whole lot of cell phones that will end up in landfills or incinerators.
The EPA estimates that less than 10% of mobile phones are getting recycled, and only about 25% of all e-waste (by weight) ends up being collected for recycling. And because all of these electronic gadgets contain not only precious metals that could be reused (which would cut down on the environmental impact and social injustices associated with many “resource extraction” and refining methods), they also contain substances that are toxic to both humans and wildlife (such as lead, dioxins, mercury, cadmium, plastics, and fire retardants), finding appropriate end-of-life solutions for these products is an important part of the sustainability puzzle.
There have been campaigns from mobile providers to take back their devices for recycling, such as the recent effort by AT&T (which set a Guinness World Record), and some other third-party recycling or reselling services, but the unfortunate truth of e-waste recycling is that an estimated 50-80% of collected electronics end up getting exported to developing nations. This trend of exporting our e-waste means that we’re also exporting all of the toxic effects of the materials to places with extremely lax regulations for health, safety, and the environment.
One rather obvious solution is to encourage or require (either through tax breaks or other incentives, or through more strict regulation) that makers and sellers of mobile devices, or even all electronics, implement programs for both the collection and recycling of their products. This could be designed with incentives for the end user — such as cash or credit or a charitable donation in their name — to easily return their old device, as one study found that 98% of people who haven’t recycled a device are willing to do so if there is a reward involved.
What other possible solutions do you see as viable for making the mobile industry more sustainable?