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Virginia Tech Sponsored Series

Virginia Tech Series 2014

Where Do Mobile Phones Go When They Die?


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By Ellen Graap Loth

How would you feel if the mobile phone you just replaced with a newer model ended up a landfill like this one?

After I purchased my first smartphone a few years ago, I visited the store where I had purchased the trusty but slightly outdated flip phone I was replacing, and asked if they would be able to take their product back and recycle it. The store employees admitted they had no idea what they would do with the phone, but they acknowledged that it was their branded product and agreed to take it back. I left feeling uneasy about where that phone would go next, but the experience prompted me to dig a bit deeper to find out.

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Americans generate almost 2.5 million tons of used electronics every year. We replace our mobile phones about every two years, and sadly, along with the other electronic products we buy, many of these phones eventually end up in our landfills (more than 80 percent) or in uncontrolled dumps and salvage heaps in developing countries in Africa and Asia. Some of them are not really dead but declared obsolete, unsellable or simply unwanted.

What’s more, according to the Electronics Take Back Coalition, not only does most e-waste end up in our landfills and incinerators, the ash from incinerators also ends up in our landfills.

Electronics: Wanted dead or alive

Why would anybody want what we throw away? In the case of consumer electronics, the answer can be found inside our devices with the wiring that connects them to each other and to power sources. The components of our electronics include rare earth elements that can be recovered and used as raw materials for the manufacturing of new products. Mobile phones contain precious metals such as gold, silver and copper, as well as other valuable materials, so it makes sense to do whatever we can to ensure that they are recycled, especially since the alternative is to continue to mine intensively for these metals. The high cost, labor intensity, and negative impacts to human health and the environment associated with the mining of precious metals are well documented.

Unfortunately, we upgrade our mobile phones and dispose of the old versions so rapidly that the few legitimate industries capable of recycling the resultant e-waste lack the capacity to deal with the massive quantities being discarded. Consequently, some of the U.S.-based companies that advertise that they recycle e-waste are actually reselling it or shipping it to overseas handlers. The practices employed by these handlers have become known as informal recycling, which typically uses primitive stripping and burning methods to recover desirable components of the e-waste items, in turn often creating local pollution and exposing people to harmful acids and toxins, and bringing very little economic benefit to those doing the processing.

If we consider that the U.S. would be a better place to establish e-waste recycling processes given the regulatory frameworks established to protect both the environment and workers, and we acknowledge that entrepreneurs in other countries want the reusable components of what we throw away because it has value, the more complicated question becomes: Why don’t WE want what we throw away?

These overseas businesses, both formal and informal, take an item like a smartphone or a laptop computer, disassemble it and strip away the parts that can’t be reused; what remains are valuable constituents that can be recovered, aggregated and sold to the highest bidder. So, it is difficult to comprehend that so many consumer electronics would end up in landfills all over the U.S., but they do.

It is surprising that it has taken so long for the producers of high-tech consumer electronics, ostensibly some of the most innovative corporate enterprises in the world, to establish take-back programs for their own products or to contribute significantly to the development of the e-waste recycling industry; however, the signs of change are in our midst, including the recent establishment of R2 Leaders, an electronics recycling group that aims to keep used gadgets and PCs out of landfills.

It is also somewhat baffling that American entrepreneurs have not completely embraced the opportunity to create new products from e-waste or at least to harness its economic potential as a source of raw materials for the technology sector. Perhaps the failure of our federal legislators to enact a comprehensive set of laws and regulations governing what goes into consumer electronics, and how they will be managed at the end of their useful lives, has left too much uncertainty in the marketplace.

I remain hopeful that our spirit of innovation will prevail so that we can stop sending valuable resources to the landfill, because if we can’t, our children and grandchildren may have to resort to mining those same landfills when they can no longer extract the precious metals from the earth itself. If you remain troubled by the idea of your old mobile phone landing in a place that is unable to deal with it in a safe and environmentally responsible manner, I can tell you that you are not alone.

What can you do about it?

You can become a well-informed consumer by doing research and asking a few simple questions of the retailer when disposing of a used phone. Ask if the company offers end-of-life take-back for the phone and its accessories, and if it ships its e-waste to a reputable recycler. Let the company know that you care about where mobile phones go.

The Basel Action Network launched the e-Stewards Initiative in 2006 with a goal to create a responsible recycling solution to our growing global e-waste problem. The online e-Stewards resources helped to inform and empower consumers to bring about the positive changes needed, including locating recyclers for mobile phones and other e-waste items. The Telecommunications Industry Association maintains a website with a map of “E-Cycling” centers by state and listing reuse, recycling and donation programs across the country. For example, Recycling for Charities accepts mobile phones and other e-waste items and assures participants that no items accepted will end up in a landfill. Through its sales to reputable vendors, Recycling for Charities makes a profit that it splits with select causes.

As a society, we need to ask the hard questions about whether the e-waste we create is handled in a manner that we would find acceptable in terms of human and environmental impacts, wherever it ends up. If we don’t like the answers, then we should take action. Everyone should visit their local landfill to see for themselves how the waste from their own homes and businesses is managed and how much of the waste that is going into the landfill, including e-waste, could be recycled. In addition, everyone who buys a mobile phone should take responsibility for what happens to the phone they are replacing.

Looking for the silver (or copper) lining in the e-waste cloud

As mentioned earlier, the U.S. has an insatiable appetite for sleek new, faster, more powerful electronic devices, with a tendency to upgrade often. This results in a generation of increasing e-waste, the environmental degradation associated with informal e-waste recycling, and the lack of a cohesive national policy on e-waste. It is clear that a multi-faceted strategy is needed to sustain the supply of resources needed to produce our electronics and to develop the best technologies to responsibly manage them when they become e-waste. I want to acknowledge that the volume of material published online on the subject of e-waste has increased significantly in the past few years, and some of the news has been encouraging, so I want to draw attention to a handful of positive developments.

First, awareness of the issue of e-waste has increased in the U.S., as evidenced by several studies and reports published on the topic. On the consumer front, participation in retail store take-back programs, as well as manufacturer- and municipality-sponsored e-waste collection events, has also increased. Best Buy, the largest U.S. electronics retailer, got in the game in 2009 by offering to collect used electronics and appliances, mostly free of charge in all of its 1,006 stores. Unfortunately the mobile phone buy-back program has been significantly reduced since its inception and now requires a contract and fee. The Best Buy recycling program accepts products from individual consumers and households, not from businesses and organizations.

From a regulatory perspective, although the U.S. Congress has not passed legislation articulating a national policy on e-waste, 25 states have enacted legislation establishing statewide e-waste recycling programs. Hoping to push our federal Executive agencies to lead by example, on Oct. 5, 2009, President Obama signed Executive Order (E.O.) 13514, Federal Leadership in Environmental, Energy, and Economic Performance, which prompted the establishment of the Interagency Task Force on Electronics Stewardship. On July 20, 2011, the Task Force issued its report, the National Strategy for Electronic Stewardship, which included recommendations to meet the objectives of the executive order for the reuse, disposal and handling of federal electronic assets.

In a follow-up effort by the federal government to control its own actions with regard to e-waste, in 2012 the General Services Administration (GSA) issued guidelines banning all federal agencies from disposing of electronic waste in landfills. The GSA has since proposed regulatory action to change its policy regarding the disposal and reporting of FEA.

From the commercial business perspective, some U.S. recyclers have committed to responsible recycling practices, prohibiting export of e-waste in accordance with the guidelines of the Basel Convention. For example, Potomac eScrap LLC and A Better Way Computer Recycling, businesses providing electronics recycling services in the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area, like other recyclers around the country, have pledged to maintain transparency and to adhere to the R2 standard of responsible recycling in their processes.

Panasonic and Samsung signed on as Advisory Members to the Northeast Recycling Council, Inc., a multi-state not-for-profit organization committed to environmental and economic sustainability through responsible solid waste management. Recycling for Charities, mentioned above, is a division of the Wireless Alliance, a for-profit corporation that sells donated e-waste items only to R2-certified vendors.

Finally, from the industrial perspective, manufacturers are coming online with e-waste management and reduction strategies, including eliminating specific toxic elements from their production lines and systematically clustering factories so that the waste from one process can be used as the raw material for another. The Japanese electronics firm NEC is one of the first multinationals to adopt the clustering approach for its production facilities. We are now faced with a great opportunity to build this type of sustainable and circular supply chain management into the design of our industrial facilities.

Achieving sustainability objectives in the realm of consumer electronics requires dedicated effort on the part of producers and buyers, and strong governance to manage them responsibly throughout their lifecycles. Now is the time to conserve the valuable resources that go into their production and to develop and consistently implement methods of reusing, recycling, recovering, refurbishing, repurposing and replacing our electronics that are safe for humans and the environment.

Image credits: 1) Flickr/Basel Action Network 2) Electronics Take Back Coalition 3) Sustainable Electronics Recycling International

Ellen Graap Loth is a degree candidate in the Executive Master of Natural Resources (XMNR) program at Virginia Tech, expecting to graduate in May 2015.

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This blog series, written by graduate students and faculty at Virginia Tech’s Center for Leadership in Global Sustainability (CLiGS), focuses on lessons learned about the leadership and innovation strategies that business, government, and civil society stakeholders are using to influence important environmental and natural resource systems, including water, food, climate, energy, and biodiversity.

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