By Teddy Hunt
Cell phones have become part of our corporate lives. We cradle them in our hands gazing tenderly at them, waiting impatiently for them to ring. We use them to connect with people and to record our lives. If we knew where they come from and where they go would we keep them so close?
It Begins at the Beginning
Image via Flickr by peretzp
Cell phones contain an astonishing array of toxic chemicals: corrosive hydrochloric acids and poisonous lead, to name just two. They’re all handled by the people who build your phone. All those toxins mean your phone counts as hazardous waste—you are carrying a little Superfund site around in your pocket. For now all that nasty stuff is locked up in that sexy case. But what happens when you throw it away? What are the effects of cell phones once you’re done with them?
Small Phones Have Big Effects
Image via Flickr by megadem
My phone is tiny, you say, it couldn’t be a big problem. There are just so many—mountains of them. Most of us get a new phone every 18 months or so, for those essential new features or that hip new style. Some old phones get stuffed in junk drawers. Others go straight into the garbage. Either way, some 500 million cell phones are ready for the trash. That adds up to a lot of hazardous waste about to go to landfills and from there into our environment. It was estimated that in 2013, companies are to spend about $70.7 billion on cell phone components.
Taking out the Trash
Image via Flickr by blackplastic
Old phones tossed in the garbage go to the landfill. There, lead from coatings and batteries can wash into the soil, water, and air. Older phones have Ni-Cd batteries—that’s nickel and cadmium. Cadmium can cause cancer, and damage to our lungs and livers. They’ll join the lead in the ground and water and, eventually, us.
There’s Gold in Them There Phones
Image via Flickr by digitalmoneyworld
Along with pesky toxins phones also contain precious metals—like gold. I wouldn’t try offering a cell phone instead of a wedding ring anytime soon, but there are people who will take your old phone apart to salvage the metals. Salvaging metals from phones means fewer environmental impacts from mining. You can get about 5 grams of gold per ton of rock in a gold mine, but nearly 200 grams of gold from a ton of cell phones, as well as 100 kilograms of copper and 3 kilograms of silver.
Old phones in reasonable condition can even go back to work. Just because you don’t want it doesn’t mean someone else won’t. There’s a thriving market for second-hand phones in India and Africa. And a thriving business dismantling and refurbishing phones for that market.
Power to the People
Image via Flickr by Brett Levin Photography
Right now the recycling rate in the US for cell phones is only 10% (it’s over 60% for paper). If we recycled the 130 million or so cell phones we throw away every year we would save enough energy to power over 24,000 homes.
So whether you own an old phone or the next time you purchase one of those new Windows cell phones look around for recycling options—a drop-off point or a charity that will give your old phone a new life. You’ll double your pleasure: a new phone and a good feeling about recycling the old one.