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Your phone’s last call should be to a recycler

The cellphones seem to multiply for Laken Lindstrom. She now has seven at home in a plastic tub. Some are newer Blackberrys, others older flip phones. All work. She keeps them in case her latest (an iPhone) breaks or relatives from abroad need one while visiting. She knows she could recycle or sell them, but at the moment that doesn’t seem the best option.
“I guess I look at them as little pieces of investment,” said Lindstrom, 27, of Southeast Portland.

She isn’t alone in holding onto her cellphones. An estimated 15 percent of cellphones in North America “are properly reused or recycled” through established and monitored channels for recycling or refurbishing, according to ABI Research, which specializes in global wireless technology markets.

Of the rest, it’s not clear how many are tossed in a drawer and eventually the trash. What is known is that the world is awash in mobile phones. A recent United Nations study found more people in the world have access to mobile phones than toilets.

And shipments of cellphones are expected to increase 17 percent over the previous year to 1.86 billion worldwide in 2013.

There is money to be made in old phones. If they’re new enough, owners can often sell them back to some wireless companies or through programs like Gazelle or NextWorth, which have easy systems for collecting the phones and paying sellers quickly. Phones still in good condition are refurbished and resold while those beyond repair can be recycled for gold, silver, platinum, palladium and copper.
The challenge is getting people to part with their idle phones. In the United States, an estimated 280 million deactivated or idle phones could be reused or refurbished, but often owners aren’t aware of sell-back and recycling options, according to Compass Intelligence, which does analysis for the high-tech and telecom industries.

ABI research estimates that over the past 18 months cellphone owners who properly disposed of their handsets jumped from 10 percent to roughly 15 percent as organizations and businesses figured out how to better educate and motivate them.

“It’s a learning process and the wireless ecosystem is starting to dial in more effective ways to drive recycling behavior,” said senior analyst Michael Morgan. “How do you get someone to turn in their cellphone? Pay them.”

Aiming higher
CTIA — The Wireless Association, a nonprofit membership organization representing the wireless communications industry, is working on developing its own baseline measurement for current cellphone collection rates and hopes to increase that by 20 percent by 2015, said Jamie Hastings, vice president of external and state affairs.

Keith Larkin, 53, of Portland uses an old LG that slides open as an alarm clock, and his family has at least three other idle phones at home. He isn’t opposed to selling or recycling them but just doesn’t think about it much. He does, however, think about their ubiquity and how constant texting has eroded communication skills.

“Before phones came along you could walk up to a person and ask them a question,” he said.

Multnomah County has tried to make it easy to recycle cellphones by placing drop boxes in some county buildings and all libraries. At Central Library downtown, the metal box just inside the main doors last week had a stash of mostly flip phones. The box is emptied monthly and the contents sent to a cellphone recycling company in Boulder, Colo.

The Wireless Alliance pays a small amount for each phone (the county libraries, for instance, raise about $1,500 annually). It collects roughly 1 million mobile phones nationwide each year. It tests them all, wipes the user information and then sells about 20 percent to refurbishing companies.

The remaining beyond-repair phones are sent to Abington Reldan Metals LLC, a member of the Coalition for American Electronics Recycling which supports legislation to restrict trade in electronic scrap with developing countries and grow the electronics recycling industry in the U.S.

Fighting toxic waste
While cellphones languishing in a drawer can be a waste of money and resources, how the phones are recycled matters. It’s not uncommon for computers, cellphones and other electronic waste to end up on the shores of developing countries where the valuable materials are extracted through open air burning and riverside acid baths, releasing toxins such as mercury, brominated flame retardants, lead and cadmium into the environment, according to the nonprofit Basel Action Network in Seattle.

The Wireless Alliance, which works with a lot of nonprofits, is an R2 and ISO 14001:2004-certified facility. The Basel Action Network argues it offers even more stringent certification to stanch the flow of toxic waste to other shores. Its e-Stewards Certification ensures only fully functional cellphones are exported to developing countries.

“The certified e-Stewards have to provide evidence their tested and working phones are going into the reuse market,” said Sarah Westervelt, e-Stewardship policy director for BAN. “We sit around these tables with representatives from many, many countries (who) say, ‘We don’t want to get your dead batteries and hazardous waste.'”

The Wireless Alliance also pays for cellphones collected by EarthShare Oregon, a federation of 80 nonprofits. EarthShare works with businesses and other entities on fundraising for its members.

While the cellphone collections raise a relatively small sum — $500 to $1,000 per year — it’s an important way for employees to take environmental action, said Meghan Humphreys, director of workplace activities at EarthShare.

“They found that a lot of people had old cellphones sitting around their houses and hadn’t figured out where to take them,” she said.

Oregon policies
Oregon’s E-Cycles program doesn’t cover cellphones. So while the law prohibits disposing of computers, monitors and TVs — collecting 26,670,440 pounds in 2012 — the state is having discussions on whether to include today’s smartphones, said James Padilla, the E-Cycles project manager for the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality. Nevertheless, many Oregon E-Cycles collection sites accept all mobile phones even if they don’t tally how many they take in.

Some businesses recycle them too. Neil Kelly in Portland works with EarthShare Oregon to offer employees the drop boxes, which is where Jeanette Wagner, 51, planned to leave her old Samsung flip phone after purchasing an iPhone at the Lloyd Center Mall last week. The seemingly disposable nature of mobile phones made her apprehensive about the upgrade, but she wanted to do Apple FaceTime with a special little boy in her life and she was intent on avoiding phone “pile-up” at her house.

“It’s time to join the real world,” she said of her new purchase outside the Verizon Wireless store, adding that she nevertheless “can’t stand phones.”

“I don’t like that we have to go through so many.”

Cellphone recycling options and information

EarthShare Oregon makes cell phone recycling at work, schools, churches or community centers a snap!  We’ll give you a collections box and pick it up when it’s full. Call or email us to find out more.

Cellphone recycling through The Wireless Alliance:
The Basel Action Network’s e-Stewards program has a nationwide list of certified electronics recyclers at

Many wireless companies offer trade-in programs such as:

Verizon Wireless:

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