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As smart phones get smarter and smaller, they also get slimmer, more fragile and more prone to breaking. But most will become obsolete and be upgraded to newer, more powerful devices before they crack.

The same can be said for regular cell phones, pagers, PDAs, e-readers, mobile MP3 players and the new breed of wearable electronics now entering the marketplace. Wherever there is a mobile device, and they are seemingly everywhere in ever growing quantities and configurations, they are destined to be trashed, refurbished or shredded to recover materials. It all adds up to a boom in business for e-recyclers.

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), mobile phones are usually replaced every 18 months, yet nearly 66 percent of men believe that their current wallet will outlast their smartphone and 53 percent of women believe their current purse will last longer than their smartphone. Turnover times get shorter each year and tech savvy enthusiasts constantly upgrade to the most recently released devices.

Mobile devices are a prized recyclable commodity because they can contain small but valuable amounts of various precious metals, including silver, gold, palladium, platinum, tin, copper and more. Plastics and glass are other valuable materials found in cell phone casings and screens. But beyond growth in recovering materials, refurbishing and reselling small devices is a rapidly growing business and highly profitable for many recyclers.

The Pew Research Center reported that 91 percent of all adults in the U.S. owned a cell phone in 2013. Although manufacturers produce a massive variety from basic cell phones to fully-featured touch-screen smart phones to other mobile devices, environmental organizations recommend reusing or recycling phones rather than discarding them whenever practical. This conserves materials and lessens the environmental impact to landfills and prevents a witch’s brew of toxic substances from leeching into water supplies. These can include lithium, cobalt, cadmium, mercury, beryllium, arsenic, bromides, tantalum and antimony.

The U.S. EPA’s latest estimate of the mobile phones collected for recycling in 2009, found that 38 percent were refurbished or reused and the remaining 62 percent were recycled.

Being small by nature, these wireless devices and accessories are too often thrown in the trash, but there are nationwide efforts to further educate the public to recycle, either to have devices refurbished for continued use, or responsibly dismantled to recover valuable feedstocks. Most major wireless carriers and many electronic retailers have instituted free, drop-off or mail-in programs to recycle handsets, tablets and netbooks as well as chargers, batteries and accessories. Unfortunately, many national and Internet retailers that sell these devices are not providing recycling services.

Before recycling, all users are urged to erase all stored information, remove SIM cards and restore the device to factory settings. If not cleared of personal information, an R2 or eSteward certified electronics recycler will automatically wipe all user content.

Tolena Thorburn, senior communications manager at T-Mobile USA shared, “Our handset recycling and reuse program provides the opportunity for our customers to bring their used handsets to any T-Mobile location in the United States and Puerto Rico. In 2013, we took back more than 5.2 million handsets and refurbished, resold or inventoried for future use about 90.2 percent of them. We then disassembled and processed responsibly to recover precious metals from the remaining 9.8 percent of the returned handsets. In total, our recycling rate was 21.6 percent in 2013.

“Our recycler is R2 certified. The R2 Standard sets forth requirements relating to environmental, health, safety and security aspects of electronics recycling. R2 also requires e-recyclers to assure that the more toxic material streams are managed safely and responsibly by downstream vendors, all the way to final disposition. It also prohibits e-recyclers and their downstream vendors from exporting these more toxic materials to countries that have enacted laws making their import illegal.”

But perhaps the advent of new technology can help recycle older technology? Take ecoATM as an example. It’s the first company to create an automated self-serve kiosk system that uses patented, advanced machine vision, electronic diagnostics, and artificial intelligence to evaluate and pay cash for old and unused electronics.

Founded in 2009, ecoATM became a subsidiary of Outerwall, Inc in 2013, a major provider of automated retail solutions. Thus far, ecoATM kiosks have collected over two million mobile devices. And collection is snowballing according to Amy Rice, company spokesperson. “It took from 2009 to April, 2013 for us to collect our first million units, however we reached two million by January of this year.”

Today ecoATM has over 900 kiosks located in 42 states, mostly in metro areas in high traffic locations like malls. The company is currently expanding into retail stores and now has kiosks in Wal Mart and Kroger. The machines accept e-readers, MP3s, tablet computers, cell and smart phones.

“We’ve found that our machines are convenient and easy for people to get cash for recycling old devices when cleaning out drawers and getting rid of old phones, or when upgrading their phones,” said Rice.

To use the machine, and prevent the acceptance of stolen goods, the user has to be 18 years or older and show a valid, state picture ID such as a driver’s license, plus a thumbprint. “While the phone is being evaluated we have three high resolution cameras that take photos of the person standing in front of the machine. Then back at our headquarters in San Diego we have live humans verifying that the person in front of the machine is the person on the ID. All machines are live-monitored for verification in this way,” Rice explained.

Users put their device in the ecoATM’s 10” x 5” inspection station for automatic evaluation. Many devices presented have a secondary resale value. Sellers have been paid upwards of $250 dollars for newer models. It depends on the make, model and condition of the device. The machine dispenses $1, $5 and $10 bills. If there is no market for refurbishing the device for resale, the ecoATM offers $1 in exchange for the device to ensure it gets properly recycled, or instead of taking the $1 the user has the option of donating it to a selection of charity partners.  

“We are simply an aggregator and our partners either refurbish or recycle what we collect. We have really strong standards and are R2 certified. That means that the companies that buy phones from us have to adhere to R2 compliance standards,” said Rice.

“We also have an excellent relationship with law enforcement. On staff, we have two directors of law enforcement who are retired police officers. A key part of our business is making sure we work closely with law enforcement to stop cell phone theft and catch thieves,” Rice concluded.

Jamie Hastings, vice president, external and state affairs for CTIA, also known as The Wireless Association, said, “CTIA and its member companies offer a number of programs to encourage consumers to responsibly retire their wireless products, including accessories. According to the EPA, recycling one million cellphones saves enough energy to power more than 185 U.S. households with electricity for a year.

“CTIA and our participating companies developed the CTIA Green Working Group, which has developed some initiatives and benchmarks. We encourage consumers to visit our website for step-by-step directions to remove their personal information before they recycle their devices and accessories,” said Hastings.

John Shegerian, president and chief executive officer of Electronic Recyclers International (ERI) provided insight into what’s happening in the business of recycling and refurbishing small, wireless devices. His company is the world’s largest privately-held recycler of electronic waste. ERI is dual certified by R2 and e-Stewards to de-manufacture and recycle every type of electronic waste. With 8 U.S. locations, ERI is processing nearly 300 million pounds of electronic waste annually.

“Currently we receive approximately 50,000 cell phones per month which are repaired and sold or responsibly recycled. In seven of our eight locations we have separated, highly secured areas built-out to handle the asset management part of our business. We refurbish everything from Google glasses and watches to other wearables to cell phones and tablets. There are massive secondary and tertiary markets in the U.S. for these products.

“What we’re seeing in small wireless devices is smaller and smaller, lighter, thinner and also wearable. Wearables are the next big thing. In the weeks and months ahead it’s going to be clothing wearables. Clothing wearables with electronic sensors are going to be huge for our industry, huge,” said Shegerian.

Wearable devices, also called tech togs, or fashion electronics are clothing and accessories incorporating computers and advanced electronics. Wearable Devices Magazine estimated that 90 million wearable devices are expected to ship in 2014. And, that’s only the beginning, industry experts predict.

“And we also see growth in the parts sector as well,” Shegerian continued. “At end of life, we can remove parts from devices before shredding the remainder. There’s going to be a parts replacement business that will be booming in the years ahead. One of the greatest things that comes in to us is shattered glass. Changing out glass for a tablet or phone is part of what we do.

“At the Consumer Electronics Show approximately 20,000 new products are introduced every year. The interesting thing about our industry, besides our shredding to recover plastics, metal and glass, is the human element, which is so important. More and more skilled workers are needed to test, disassemble, data-wipe, repair, retest, recertify and resell these devices. You move from just strict automation in shredding the end-of-life stuff, to needing more and more skilled workers in asset management to handle it. While our end-of-life business has grown 30 percent per year, which is our core business of shredding and making things into commodities, our asset management which covers small devices has grown 50 percent. That’s how busy that sector is, and it’s growing,” Shegerian ended.

Published in the August 2014 Edition of American Recycler News