How Can We Increase Phone Recycling Rates?

Sprint CEO, Dan Hesse, discusses his company’s ambitious cell phone recycling goal at Fortune: Brainstorm Green. Photo: Jennifer Berry, Earth911

Upping recycling is a challenge even for seasoned sustainability professionals. At the Fortune: Brainstorm Green roundtable where Edmondson spoke, Contributing Editor for Fortune magazine and Co-Chair of the conference, Marc Gunther, polled the room to find out who had an old phone residing in a desk drawer or garage. Of the more than 45 people in the room, practically all raised their hands (including this writer).

A number of hurdles stand in the way: habits, fear of data security, worry that a device will be recycled using dangerous practices, and a host of other concerns.

Find your local recycling solution for smartphones

Creating Habits

Sprint’s Vice President of Corporate Responsibility, Ralph Reid, says one of the biggest challenges is that “you just have to remember to bring it back.” Sprint starts by working with its employees (who test and utilize a number of phones) to remember to bring phones back for recycling with regular events at its headquarters.  “Those are good things,” he says, “but from there it’s working with our customers, letting them know and creating a culture in them. Maybe its something that needs to be like an annual checkup. We’re not trying to sell more phones, we just don’t want it go [to waste].”

Sprint has an ambitious goal when it comes to mobile device recycling: For every 10 phones they sell annually, they want to recycle 9 (regardless of make or carrier). The challenge comes at the request of CEO Dan Hesse, who sees the value in cell phone recycling, even though it costs the carrier.

“When you get to be the CEO, you get to do some things that you care about, quite frankly,” said Hesse at Fortune: Brainstorm Green. “When you get to the economics, it’s hard to quantify the value for the brand, but I believe we’ll get there.”

Hearing the call? Read: Sprint to Launch More Green Phones, Packaging

Sprint provides a number of avenues for cell phone recycling: In-store take back options, instant refunds based on the value of your phone (up to $300 for the most valuable models), postage-paid shipping bags included in new phone boxes to mail your old phone back, donation programs that support online safety measures for kids, and even recycling at NASCAR and NBA events. In this manner, cell phone recycling becomes part of everyday processes like buying a new phone or attending a sporting event.

Letting Go

In the same vein, Edmondson says that we should buy cell phones like we do cars. “We need to create a new normal, where you go into a store with one, and you leave one. You don’t take it and park [the old one] behind your house.”

To Edmondson, changing consumer as well as industry behavior is key, relating the reluctance to push refurbished or refreshed phones to Henry Ford’s worry that selling used cars would strike a serious blow at the demand for new models. Edmondson postulates that the opposite is true: “When you trade in your device, you make other decisions faster. You have $40 to $50 more you didn’t expect to get and that speeds up the transaction.”

When it comes to data security, using larger carrier recycling programs is often a safer bet. “The issue of data security, which is very very important, you worry what’s going to happen to all that personal data. Whereas if you give that to an associate [at a store where you’re purchasing a new phone] with a locked box, it feels better. If we can’t get rid of all the data, we’ll drill a hole in the chip and take a loss on that device rather than risk data security.”

Redefining Value

Reevaluating how much a phone is “worth” is key as well. “Some people don’t know how valuable the materials are. Some of it has to do with how we marketed the phones,” says Reid. “Maybe they know it as ‘the $199 phone’ or ‘the $50 phone,’ and they don’t realize the phone had a value of $500 because Sprint decided to subsidize it.

“Some of it could be due to the way we buy the phone down so it’s affordable to consumers. The other issue is that most people don’t understand how technologically advanced the phones are and knowing that all the raw minerals that go into manufacturing it.”

At the end of the day, the most creative programs can be in place, but people have to actually use them. “It’s not tech or creativity that are the most important aspects of innovation,” says Adam Lowry, co-founder of Method cleaning products, “adoption is.”

Homepage image: Flickr/ario_

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