By Michael Grebb, Thu Nov 07 09:45:00 GMT 2002

As garbage barges wander aimlessly from port to port, so too has Western civilization often flung itself haplessly into the trappings of a disposable culture.

A category that began with such basics as cutlery, razors, and diapers has evolved into one of cigarette lighters and even cameras. It seems only fitting that with Moore's Law now cruising on autopilot, complex electronic gadgetry is joining the disposable crowd. Next up: Disposable mobile handsets. And it may be only a matter of time before disposable mobile Web devices follow.

For now, companies such as Garden Grove, Calif.-based Hop-On, Dieceland Technologies of Cliffside Park, N.J., and Orlando-Fla.-based New Horizons Technologies International are preparing to launch pre-paid handsets in the U.S., to court supposedly untapped markets such as kids too young for regular mobile devices, tourists, international travelers whose handsets operate on incompatible networks, and people who just want a low-maintenance device for a camping trip or some other outing where an expensive gadget might not be necessary.

Hop-On launched its first disposable phones in the U.S. on Oct. 17 at three Walgreens locations in southern California, with plans to expand distribution throughout the drugstore chain's 3,818-store network as demand dictates. Later the same month, Qualcomm licensed to Hop-On its CDMA technology and patents to develop, manufacture and sell cdmaOne and CDMA2000 subscriber equipment.

A Digital Wasteland

The companies are also hoping to woo consumers who either don't want to sign a service contract, or in many cases, couldn't qualify for one with a traditional wireless carrier. "Anyone who is not a hardcore, active cell phone user is a target," says David Pasquale, spokesman for Hop-On. Randice-Lisa Altschul, founder and president of Dieceland, notes that she doesn't even plan to market handsets as "disposable," choosing to frame them more as a phone card that can be used over and over. "We are an enhanced phone card, and not being marketed to the traditional user," she says.

Nonetheless, environmentalists aren't thrilled about the prospect of yet another product that many consumers may inevitably view as disposable, especially when it could open the door for scores of new disposable wireless devices and mini-computers. "If the technology is there, then we're going to see them in the marketplace," says Eric Most, director of the solid waste prevention program at INFORM, a New York City-based independent research firm. "And they'll be thrown in the garbage." Ted Smith, executive director of the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition (SVTC), is a bit more blunt: "If they make them non-toxic and edible that would be fine. Otherwise, I think it stinks."

Although piles of plastic handsets in landfills may not stink as bad as rotting leftovers, Smith and others worry about the growing and global problem of electronic waste--or "e-waste"--that increasingly has found its way to Asia and other third-world countries. Up until now, the problem has mostly involved computer circuit boards and consumer-electronic products such as old radio and television sets. According to the SVTC, a litany of toxins within computer products can end up leaching poisons into groundwater or emitting toxic air pollutants, including dioxins.

Toxic Tech

Even recycling e-waste doesn't necessarily solve the problem because the recycling industry is often too cash-strapped to afford the necessary precautions to protect the environment and worker health. Because cell phones and PDAs are increasingly "mini-computers," it stands to reason that making them disposable could potentially add to an already vexing problem.

Here are just a few compounds found in computer products and many mobile devices:

  • Lead -- Computer monitors can contain three to eight pounds of lead, but smaller amounts are also used as solder in printed circuit boards and other components. "All phones have lead in them," says Smith. Lead can damage the human central and peripheral nervous systems, blood systems, kidney, and reproductive systems.

  • Cadmium -- Cadmium, a toxin that can accumulate in the kidneys, can be found in certain components such as chip resistors, infrared detectors, and semiconductor chips.

  • Mercury -- Mercury, which can damage various organs such as the brain and kidneys, as well as a fetus, is used in sensors, relays, circuit boards, batteries, and mobile devices. Mercury is also used in flatscreen monitors, which are put to increasing use in electronic products.

  • Brominated flame-retardants -- Used in plastic housings of electronics and circuit boards to prevent flammability, brominated flame-retardants can release dioxins when burned for recycling.

  • Smith worries that the introduction of disposable handsets creates yet another item that consumers may feel inclined to throw away--obviously, at much higher rates than standard mobile devices that remain in a user's possession for years. "It's just going down the path of figuring out a way to make it easier to throw these things away," he says. "We need to go down the path of figuring out a way to make it easier to recycle."

    Looming Legislation

    Such concerns have prompted several U.S. lawmakers to introduce legislation to curb potential "e-waste" problems. At the federal level, Rep. Mike Thompson (D, Calif.) in July introduced a bill to add an up to $10 fee on the sale of various computer products to finance computer recycling nationwide. The bill is vague on whether standard or disposable wireless devices would fall under the "computer" classification. According to the bill, fees would apply to devices that "contain a significant amount of material that, when disposed of, would be hazardous waste, and including one or more liquid crystal displays, cathode ray tubes, or circuit boards."

    Most handsets--even disposable ones--would seem to contain at least some of those components, but the final decision on what devices to include would be up to the Environmental Protection Agency. "The question is, `how do you define an industry that changes so fast'," said one Capitol Hill staffer who worked on drafting the legislation. "But we didn't want to create a dragnet that covers all devices." California state lawmakers have introduced similar bills, which are opposed by the Electronics Industries Association.

    For their part, disposable handset companies say they plan to encourage their users to recycle or reuse their handsets. Hop-On plans to institute a recycling program in which customers can receive a $5 rebate on a future purchase by mailing in their used handset for recycling or refurbishment. Dieceland uses a patented process of printing circuitry onto a paper substrate, which is sealed and laminated--and then folded--into the shape of a handset. Metallic ink is used rather than wires.

    Still, it's unclear how many of the above-mentioned toxins will be in the handsets, partly because the companies worry about revealing too much about their patented technology to potential competitors. "Though I cannot go into details right now," explains Altschul, "I must say that the actual product to launch and the disposable element thereof will not be harmful to anyone. When you see what we have done... the environmental community will be pleased."

    The Waiting Game

    Industry observers, however, wonder whether the environmental impact of disposable wireless devices will be put to the test any time soon, considerably the fluid rollout schedules and untested consumer demand that has yet to create a market. "My sense is that this market will be pretty small in the U.S.," says Adam Guy, an independent wireless industry analyst in Washington, D.C. "It's getting people to accept this idea. I've never been really bullish on it."

    One factor that could spur the market, Guy says, would be the widespread adoption of expensive wireless devices that combine phone and PDA features. While such devices are now in the nascent early-adopter stage, Guy says people may not want to bring such a high-end device everywhere they go. "Instead of taking this souped-up device, you could take a cheap, disposable one," he says. "Then, it's no big deal if you lose it."

    Of course, traditional wireless carriers have already started marketing "pre-paid" handsets that consumers can buy at convenience stores and other such outlets--the same venues coveted by disposable handset marketers.

    AT&T Wireless, for example, has deployed boxed pre-paid handsets to 7-11 stores in select markets, allowing consumers to buy and activate wireless service without ever visiting a wireless dealer. Minutes are included with the package, and the user can simply re-up every 45 days or when the minutes run out. "A lot of parents buy these for kids to monitor how many minutes they're in use," says AT&T Wireless spokesman Ritch Blasi. He notes that the youth market may be a tough sell for cheap-looking disposable handsets. "Kids want to at least look like they have a regular phone," he says.

    Strategy Analytics predicts that vendors worldwide will sell fewer than 50,000 disposable handsets in 2002, rising to just under 2 million by 2007. "Disposable phones will only become a potential environmental threat if they ship in high volumes," says Neil Mawston, an analyst in Strategy Analytics' London office.

    Indeed, recycling and "take-back" programs are all the rage in the traditional wireless industry, suggesting that similar programs could be adopted by emerging companies that offer disposable handsets. But unlike disposable cameras, which must always be taken to a film developer to get prints, it's much harder to track where wireless devices might end up. Kodak long ago instituted a program to collect used cameras from Photomats; there's no similarly organized way to collect used one-time-use handsets. Mawston says that 70 to 90 percent of disposable handsets will likely be recyclable.

    The only question is how many people will yield to the temptation of the trash bin.

    Michael Grebb has written for The 'now-defunct' Industry Standard, Business 2.0, and eCompany. From Washington DC, he covers the impact of mobile technology on modern society.