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Sprint Offers $5K to Students Who Find Innovative Ways to Recycle Smartphones

Alexis Petru headshotWords by Alexis Petru
Energy & Environment
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Have a bright idea for a new way to recycle an old smartphone? This week, Sprint launched its first-ever Smartphone Encore Challenge that invites students to come up with innovative and profitable ways to give new life to these unwanted devices or their components – for the chance to win $5,000 to turn their business plan into reality.

The wireless carrier launched the competition on Monday. It's open to teams of undergraduate and graduate students who are members of corporate social responsibility (CSR) nonprofit Net Impact’s 155 collegiate chapters across the United States. To participate, students will develop and submit a product concept and business pitch using secondhand smartphones and accessories provided by Sprint and wireless distributor Brightstar.

Motivated by the growing environmental problem of electronic waste, Sprint is partnering with Net Impact, Brightstar and electronics recycler HOBI International on the recycling challenge. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that Americans toss out 135 million cell phones each year, according to Sprint, and only 11 percent are recycled.

But secondhand phones contain valuable materials, and those in good working condition maintain many of their capabilities; thus, these phones represent an “untapped business opportunity,” the company said in a statement. Smartphones in decent working order retain their high-tech features – an accelerometer, gyroscope, GPS, camera and display screen – and still have the capacity to capture, process, store and transfer data, Sprint said. Currently, most gently-used smartphones are resold in emerging economies like China, although the domestic market for secondhand devices is growing, thanks to carrier trade-in programs and electronics resellers like Gazelle and Amazon.

Unwanted and unusable phones can be disassembled into their component parts – plastics, batteries, and metals like gold, copper, silver and palladium – and made into new products.

Contest details


Individual students or teams of students can sign up for the Smartphone Encore Challenge on the contest’s homepage; participation is limited to the first 25 groups that register. Sprint will send participating students two pre-owned Android smartphones that will be activated with domestic voice, text and data for the duration of the contest – along with phone batteries and chargers. Participants will receive pricing information for the device to help them develop their business plans, as well as a video from HOBI showing how to disassemble and reassemble the phones. Each team must turn in its product concept, business pitch and an optional brief video by March 27.

A panel of judges from Sprint and its partners will evaluate submissions on their proposed solution, market, innovation, value proposition and financial feasibility. The winning individual or team will be awarded $5,000, which they can use to bring their business plan to a Startup Weekend, a weekend-long event that helps aspiring entrepreneurs determine if their startup ideas are viable. They will also have the opportunity to strengthen their business models with guidance from executives at Sprint, Brightstar or HOBI. The winner and two runners-up will be featured in Net Impact’s “Issues in Depth” webinar for this year’s Earth Day.

The Smartphone Encore Challenge is the newest initiative in Sprint’s corporate sustainability program and shows the wireless carrier’s support of at least some extended producer responsibility – a product stewardship model where a company takes financial responsibility for its products at the end of their useful lives. For fours year in a row, market research firm Compass Intelligence has ranked Sprint’s phone buyback and trade-in program as No. 1 among all major U.S. carriers because of the program’s accessibility and convenience, as well as the company’s commitment to reclaiming devices.

Last year, Sprint bought back more than 3 million phones, and of these, more than 80 percent were resold as pre-owned devices, the company said – and as we know, reusing a product is more environmentally friendly than recycling it.

Sprint’s smartphone recycling challenge is an exciting initiative to keep our growing electronic waste out of the landfill, as well as to inspire the next generation of entrepreneurs. I can’t wait to see what these students dream up.

Image credit: Flickr/Maurizio Pesce

Passionate about both writing and sustainability, Alexis Petru is freelance journalist and communications consultant based in the San Francisco Bay Area whose work has appeared on Earth911, Huffington Post and Patch.com. Prior to working as a writer, she coordinated environmental programs for Bay Area cities and counties. Connect with Alexis on Twitter at @alexispetru

Alexis Petru headshotAlexis Petru

Passionate about both writing and sustainability, Alexis Petru is freelance journalist and communications consultant based in the San Francisco Bay Area whose work has appeared on Earth911, Huffington Post and Patch.com. Prior to working as a writer, she coordinated environmental programs for various Bay Area cities and counties for seven years. She has a degree in cultural anthropology from UC Berkeley.

Read more stories by Alexis Petru