US: New Eco-Menace, Discarded Cellphones

As the nation's fondness for cellphones grows, the environmental effects do, too.

According to industry figures, cellphone use in the United States has surged, to more than 128 million subscribers last year from 340,000 in 1985. Typically, each phone is used for 18 months before being dropped for a newer model.

That is starting to add up to a huge amount of waste, says Inform, an environmental organization that issued a report this year on old phones. The Environmental Protection Agency helped finance the study.

By 2005, the report estimates, 130 million cellphones will be thrown out each year. Counting the phones, batteries and chargers, that comes to 65,000 tons a year, the report said. Although some phones may just stay unused in desk drawers, the report said, most will end up in landfills or being incinerated.

"This is becoming a very serious problem, because the amount of cellphone waste is growing tremendously," said Eric Most, director of the solid waste prevention program at Inform. "These chemicals accumulate and persist in the environment. They get in the plants, soil, water, and then move up the stream to humans."

The threat of cellphone waste is not restricted to the United States. More than a billion cellphones are used worldwide, and Japan and several European countries have started pressuring manufacturers to eliminate toxic chemicals.

Researchers at Inform say companies can act to eliminate waste by creating take-back programs that offer discounts on new phones or phone service in exchange for returned equipment.

"If producers have to take back their cellphones, they have an incentive to make products that generate less waste and are easier to recycle," said Bette K. Fishbein, an economist who was lead author of the study. "Australia has a nationwide take-back program, and Europe is about to mandate that companies take back their electronics. The same should be done in the U.S."

Some companies, including Verizon and Sprint, do have take-back programs, but the main industry group, the Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association, opposes mandatory programs. Rather than requiring manufacturers to dispose of old phones, the industry prefers programs in which old phones are turned over to charities or resold in less developed countries, said Travis Larson, a spokesman for the group.

Some states have taken small steps to promote reusing cellphones. A government-financed program in Maryland collects used cellphones that are recycled or reprogrammed and given to the elderly so they can call 911 in an emergency.

"Recovery of cellphones is occurring on a much larger scale in other countries, often with the cooperation of manufacturers and retailers," the Environmental Protection Agency said in a statement in August. "E.P.A. is interested in working to encourage similar developments in the United States."

The agency is working with Inform on a follow-up study to examine the effectiveness of reusing and recycling cellphones.

In the meantime, Ms. Fishbein said, American manufacturers should limit waste by standardizing design elements so consumers have fewer reasons to buy new phones.

Although manufacturers are working to reduce their use of toxic materials, they oppose a mandated technical standard, Mr. Larson said.

"If we had had a government standard in the beginning," he said, "we'd still all be speaking on analog phones. And that means no e-mail, no text messaging, no Caller ID. Competition equals innovation in this case."

AMP Section Name:Technology & Telecommunications
  • 183 Environment

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