by Craig Weatherby
Americans discard more than 100 million computers, cellphones and other electronic devices every year, creating more than 75,000 tons of partly toxic garbage.
This 2002 estimate comes from the US Environmental Protection Agency, and probably understates the scale of cell-phone waste today.
The EPA estimates that by 2005 there will be over 700 million retired phones in the U.S. Of these, 75 percent will be stored in people's homes, 20 percent will be thrown away, and five percent will be recycled.
Concern about its threat to the environment is growing as this “e-waste” accumulates.
Cell phones contribute a growing portion of the toxic materials that end up in our landfills, thanks to due to their small size and rapid replacement cycle.
The phones and their accessories contain many hazardous substances known as Persistent, Bioaccumulative and Toxic Chemicals (PBTs).
These include metals—like antimony, arsenic, beryllium, cadmium, copper and lead—which can linger in the environment for a long time and can damage the nervous system, cause reproductive and development problems, and promote cancer.
And not all recycling firms act responsibly, shipping used electronics overseas to be dismantled by hand, poisoning penniless workers and their environments. (America's largest cell-phone recycler claims not to engage in this practice … see our discussion of ReCellular Inc., below.)
Donate or recycle your old cell phone
Rather than throw old cell phones away, it makes sense to recycle or donate them.
One great option is the Secure the Call Foundation, which converts donated cell phones into 911 emergency-use cell phones and given away for free to those in need.
Secure the Call Foundation is a non-profit coalition of police departments, sheriff's offices, battered women's shelters,
neighborhood watch groups, community service organizations and senior citizen centers.
Almost every law enforcement agency, domestic violence department and senior citizen center in the United States collects and redistributes old cell phones to those in need, but the phones must be tested, cleaned, cleared of all old numbers, programmed for 911, retested, and then prepared for distribution.
Secure the Call Foundation does all that work at no charge to the collecting organizations or donators.
Of course, the Foundation needs cash donations to keep going, and volunteers.
If you have a need for a 911 phone, or know someone who does, contact Secure the Call Foundation.
And there are other ways to recycle your phone or help charities with it. To see some options, go to ReCellular Inc. (Just enter your zip code on their home page.)
ReCellular is a private company that works with many major cell phone makers and charities, helping to recycle and donate old cell phones, whether working or broken.
As to recycling, ReCellular's web site declares that the firm is “…dedicated to the proper management of obsolete cellular handsets, batteries, and accessories. All end-of-life electronic products MUST be managed and sent to a qualified recycler located in a developed OECD country” (OECD stands for the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, which is a well-known respected international treaty group of nations).
What you can do to avoid “blood phones”
You've probably heard of “blood diamonds”—the title of a Leonardo DiCaprio movie about the subject—which were smuggled and sold by rebels to fund the recently ended wars in Liberia andSierra Leone.
Unfortunately, a mineral required for the chips in cell phones—called coltan—has just even more blood on it.
Coltan—short for columbite-tantalite—is a metallic ore comprising niobium and tantalum, found mainly in the eastern regions of the Democratic Republic of Congo (formerly Zaire).
When refined, coltan yields a heat resistant powder called metallic tantalum, which is used to greatly increase the performance of the capacitors in cell phones and many other electronic devices, which control current flow in circuit boards.
Along with greed for gold, the illegal coltan trade played a major role in the ongoing international and civil war in the huge, lawless Democratic Republic of Congo, where some three million people have been killed and many made homeless since the late 1990's.
Even though Coltan is mined in Brazil, Thailand and Australia—the prime producer of Coltan—Africa holds some 80 percent of the world reserves.
And the Democratic Republic of Congo has more than 80 percent of Africa's deposits.
Some 10,000 miners—some virtually enslaved by militias—work digging it out in eastern Congo, which has been occupied by the armies of Rwanda and Uganda since 1998.
Rwandan, Ugandan and Burundian rebels loot and smuggle thousands of tons of coltan from the Congo to sell on the world market, using the profits to finance their militias.
Official statistics provided by these countries' own governments show that Uganda and Rwanda dramatically increased the export of coltan following their occupation of northeastern Congo.
There is evidence that coltan mining contaminates local waters and land, causing congenital deformations in babies in the mining zone.
And coltan is often found in the middle of endangered gorilla and elephant habitats, with animals are being killed by rebel bands mining the ore.
The U.N. has reported that in the past five years, the eastern lowland gorilla population in the Congo has declined 90 percent. Reducing the demand for Congolese coltan will also help save these animals and their habitat.
What you can do
The world's largest maker of tantalum capacitors—American-based Kemet—has asked its suppliers to certify that their coltan ore does not come from Congo or bordering countries.
And some major phone manufacturers are voluntarily restricting their coltan sourcing to non-conflict regions.
Before buying a phone, visit that company's website to see if they have a policy on coltan sourcing.
If the manufacturer's procedures to prevent use of “blood coltan” seem insufficiently strict, let them know why you're passing up their product. It may help prod them into a stronger position on this conflict-promoting commodity.
- Essick K, Boslet M, Gröndahl B, Oreskovic A. Guns, Money and Cell Phones. The Industry Standard. June 11, 2001. Accessed online August 25, 2007 at http://www.thestandard.com/article/0,1902,26784,00.html
- Fishbein BK. Waste in the Wireless World: The Challenge of Cell Phones. Accessed online August 25, 2007 at http://www.informinc.org/reportpdfs/wp/WasteintheWirelessWorld.pdf