Don't Throw That Phone Away
By Eric Lin, Sat Oct 02 00:00:00 GMT 2004

In an effort to do something about the millions of obsolete mobile phones that become potential garbage after being replaced, California has a new law mandating all handset retailers must offer recycling for old models.

California is not only the first US State to enact a cellular customer Bill of Rights, it is now the first to enact legislation requiring the recycling of mobile phones. The bill, signed into law today, requires that all retail outlets selling handsets also have on-site collection for the re-use, recycling or safe disposal of mobile phones. The bill allows retailers plenty of time to arrange a suitable solution. They have until July 1, 2006 to get something in place, even if it is as simple as contracting a company like ReCellular to supply postage paid envelopes for subscribers to mail off their old phones for recycling.

The bill's sponsor, Assemblywoman Fran Pavley, says more than 40,000 mobile phones are tossed aside each day. Murk Murray, Executive Director of Calfiornians Against Waste, estimates that as many as 25,000 of these phones wind up in the dump as opposed to retiring to drawers and closets. However a previous article in the Wall Street Journal (reprinted here) estimates that only about 25 percent of obsolete mobiles are tossed away. Most are tucked away or handed down, however the article does stress that only about 5% of old handsets are currently recycled.

Pavley, her co-authors and many environmental groups are concerned with the toxic elements in phones that would leech into soil and ground water when obsolete handsets are emptied into landfill. In addition to the recycling bills, manufacturers such as Motorola have announced efforts to reduce or completely remove elements like lead from future models, as well as offering return mailers for old phones in boxes for new ones. Still, mobile phones only contribute a small amount of the lead, mercury and arsenic in modern-day technology that could effect the environment. However any step is a valuable one.

What the bill's authors, nor any of the articles, mention is whether recycling efforts will reclaim Tantalum which is critical to mobile phone technology yet primarily available in (and partially responsible for) war-torn central Africa. It is possible to recycle Tantalum from integrated circuits and microchips, and many services to do so operate within the US. However it appears that issues closer to home are foremost in the minds of Pavley and other Californians.