U.S. Looking at 130 Million Cell Phones Discarded by 2005

New York, NY - Cell phone use has grown dramatically in the United States, from 340,000 subscribers in 1985 to over 128 million in 2001, reports "Waste in the Wireless World: The Challenge of Cell Phones," a study released by the national environmental research organization INFORM. Cell phones are typically used for only 18 months before being replaced, and by 2005 about 130 million of these devices, weighing approximately 65,000 tons, will be retired annually in the U.S. Most of them will initially be stored away in closets and drawers, creating a stockpile of about 500 million used phones that will soon enter the waste stream.

"Waste in the Wireless World" analyzes the environmental problems created by cell phones, which also apply to other wireless electronic devices, such as personal digital assistants, portable e-mail devices, pagers, pocket PCs, and MP3 music players. All are made of similar materials and present similar problems with respect to the waste they generate. Wireless waste poses particularly acute problems when these small devices are sent to landfills or incinerators, where releases of the many toxic materials they contain create threats to human health and the environment.

"Waste in the Wireless World" presents a series of specific recommendations for minimizing the environmental and health impacts of cell phone waste:

Design-related Recommendations

The use of toxic substances in cell phones - particularly lead and brominated flame retardants - should be reduced. Toxic substances contained in cell phones include a number of persistent and bioaccumulative toxic chemicals, or PBTs, which have been associated with cancer and a range of reproductive, neurological, and developmental disorders. PBTs pose a particular threat to children, whose developing organ and immune systems are highly susceptible to toxic insult. PBTs in cell phones include arsenic, antimony, beryllium, cadmium, copper, lead, nickel, and zinc. Additional health threats are posed by brominated flame retardants used in plastic components. These toxic substances can leach into soil and groundwater from landfills and form highly toxic dioxins and furans during incineration and recycling.

U.S. companies are developing alternatives to lead and brominated flame retardants but have made no commitments to eliminate them from products. Many U.S. electronics producers, and the industry's main trade associations, continue to lobby against bans on these substances, arguing that the available alternatives would not perform as well and may be even more damaging to the environment.

A single technical standard for all cell phone carriers, along with standardized cell phone design elements, should be implemented in the U.S. and worldwide. Phone systems in Europe all use a single standard, used in over 130 countries by two-thirds of the world's cell phone subscribers. In contrast, the U.S. has several competing technical standards, forcing users to purchase a new phone when they change service providers or travel abroad. As a result, more phones are purchased and more discarded.

Design standardization would allow adapters and other accessories to be used with many makes and models of cell phone. At present, accessories are dedicated to specific devices, creating additional waste whenever consumers buy a new phone. Like cell phones, such accessories contain toxic components and frequently create more waste than the phones themselves.

Cell phones and their accessories, including power sources, should be designed for disassembly, reuse, and recycling. The key to reducing waste and making reuse and recycling cost-effective is product design. For example, products designed to last longer will generate less waste, and products that contain alternatives to toxic components will be cheaper to recycle. Similarly, if manufacturers make ease of disassembly a priority, designers will create products with parts that can be easily removed for repair or reuse and materials that can be easily separated for recycling.

Disposal-related Recommendations

U.S. manufacturers should implement effective take-back programs for cell phones. An effective program includes targets for collection and reuse/recycling, reporting requirements, and enforcement mechanisms. Most voluntary take-back initiatives for cell phones and/or other electronic equipment in the U.S. lack all of these crucial components.

Financial incentives, such as deposit/refund systems, are needed to encourage consumers to return cell phones and other small electronic devices for collection and reuse/recycling. In the U.S., deposit/refund systems for beverage containers have been very effective at encouraging the return and recycling of cans and bottles: recycling rates are three times higher in states with deposit/refund systems in place than in states without such systems. Providing discounts on new phones or phone service in exchange for returned equipment can also encourage consumer participation in take-back programs.

Rechargeable batteries, which are particularly toxic, should be a target for take-back. Cell phones are powered by any of several rechargeable battery types, all of which contain toxic substances that can contaminate the environment when burned in incinerators or disposed of in landfills. If each of the 130 million cell phones that will be discarded each year by 2005 uses two sets of batteries before being retired, 260 million of these batteries will enter the waste stream each year from cell phones alone. Today, the only nationwide, industry-wide product take-back program in the U.S. is for rechargeable batteries. This program, run by the Rechargeable Battery Recycling Corporation, represents a positive step for the U.S., since producers that participate take full financial responsibility for managing their products at end of life. However, the program has not reported regularly on its recycling rates, has failed to meet its targets, and has had to face no consequences for the shortfall.

Take-back programs should be introduced from the outset for all disposable cell phones, if and when these devices become available. Cell phones designed to be thrown away after being used for about 60 minutes could produce large amounts of additional waste. Plans to market such phones have encountered delays, but the prospect of their introduction remains a reality. If these products are not designed for reuse and recycling, with programs established to take them back after consumers discard them, the waste they generate will place additional burdens on municipal waste systems and the taxpayers who fund them.

Progress Abroad, Pressure at Home

INFORM's study documents efforts in Europe, Japan, and Australia to deal with this fast-growing and hazardous waste stream. For example, Australia has implemented the world's first and only nationwide take-back program dedicated to recovering and recycling cell phones. In the European Union (EU), pending directives will require electronics manufacturers to phase out toxic components and take responsibility for waste generated by products marketed in the EU. And forthcoming design guidelines in Japan will result in more long-lasting and recyclable electronic products with fewer toxic components. In the US, no such national commitments have been made.

"Despite the lack of any current or pending federal legislation addressing the end-of-life management of electronics, US government and industry are likely to be influenced by trends abroad," said Bette Fishbein, INFORM senior fellow and report author. "For example, state-level legislation is being considered in California, Massachusetts, and Minnesota that would make producers responsible for paying the costs of managing the waste generated by their electronic products. Additionally, U.S. manufacturers will have to follow the applicable requirements abroad for internationally marketed goods by eliminating toxic substances from these products and funding their take-back. With such changes on the horizon, American industry has even more reason to get ahead of the curve."