We’ve been reading about the mounting problem of e-waste for years. According to the EPA, it’s the fastest growing portion of our waste stream. But for all the discussion about e-cycling, rates are not increasing at the same speed of our consumption.
The most recent EPA data shows that the most recycled form of e-waste is computers (38 percent), but one of the fastest growing segments, mobile devices, isn’t comparing. “Approximately 141 million mobile devices were ready for end-of-life management in 2009, more than any other type of product,” says the report. This means we’re storing or throwing out more than we should, with the 2009 cell phone recycling rate only at 8 percent (approximately 11.8 million devices).
State programs to enforce collection are improving the picture. An EPA report on e-waste management through 2009 notes that states with “low levels of collection report approximately one pound per capita; states with higher levels of collection [laws in place] report three to six pounds per capita.” But solely relying on regulation is not enough. Changing the way we think about and perceive e-waste needs to happen as well.
Most major cell phone carriers offer some sort of a recycling option. And some in the U.S., like Sprint, Verizon and AT&T, can offer recyclers serious cash for their devices. They’ve partnered with eRecyclingCorps, the largest recycler of wireless devices in the world.
According to eRecyclingCorps’ co-founder and CEO, David Edmondson, 1.2 billion devices will be sold around the world this year, but only 1 percent of those will be recycled. Additionally, Edmondson says that almost 1 billion devices are unaccounted for – an amount that would circle the equator almost 22 times.
Devices collected through programs managed by eRecyclingCorps are sent to a 250,000 square-foot central processing facility in Bloomington, Ind. The devices are triaged, and an appropriate course is decided based on their working order. They may be disassembled for parts, or refurbished or renewed for resale. “Once they’re renewed, they sell them in other parts of the world into developing markets,” says Edmondson.
“There’s a huge digital divide […] related to wireless devices. In India, they spend $7 a month on their phone bill, but as a result there’s no economics for subsidies, and they have to pay the full price for their phones [usually around $450]. This way, they get a phone that’s advanced beyond what they would buy, at a greatly reduced cost.” Additionally, the average life span of a cell phone in the U.S. is 18 months, versus a whopping 7 years in India.
The point? An old phone still has value even if you can’t play Angry Birds or shoot with Instagram on it. “There is no such thing as a wireless device that doesn’t have value. The most beat up working phone there is has about $2.85 of gold in it,” says Edmondson.
But why are we so hesitant to give up our phones?