The Several Lives of a Cell Phone

I am 25 years old and got my first cell phone, a lovely Nextel with the obnoxious two-way radio, when I was 16. I am now on my fifth phone, a BlackBerry Curve that I love. Most people I know seem to get new phones much more often than I do, but I’m not that far behind the average for replacing them. Most people get a new cell phone every 18 months.

My BlackBerry, its super fun skin & me @ 11:30 p.m. May 17.

I am just one of more than 6.8 billion people who are scattered all over this world and I have had five phones over the course of nine years. About 60 percent of the world’s population now uses a cell phone and the International Telecommunications Union estimated that there were 4.6 billion cell phones in the world in 2009. According to Eco Green Services, the EPA predicts that more than 150 million cell phones are thrown away each year in the U.S. alone — 75,000 tons of toxic material waste every year.

By Ben Jordan
426,000 cell phones taken out of commission each day, by Ben Jordan

How many cell phones have you gone through since the boom began? What did you do with the phones that weren’t high tech enough for you or whose battery couldn’t hold a charge? Hopefully, you didn’t toss them in the garbage, like I’m pretty sure I did for my first one or two.

Cell phones contain several toxins that can be released into soil, air and water if they end up in landfills, then incinerators. They also contain precious metals that can be reused.

Fortunately, there are practically as many options for extending the life of a cell phone as there are phone users. OK, not quite that many, but you get my point. Later, we’ll get to the recycling part, but for now, it’s worth noting that so much charitable good can be done by giving away your old phones and they can get a totally new, second life. Last year, I donated two phones to MobileImpact.Org, just because I got a Facebook invite to do so. I had a couple laying around in a drawer “just in case.” But who was I kidding? If my phone broke, was I really going to reactivate one from three years ago? Doubtful. So I looked into and its Earth Day 2009 campaign to bring communication to those in Third World countries who lack it, and I sent two phones along. I hadn’t thought much about it in the year since then. Even when I upgraded to my BlackBerry last winter, I once again set aside my old LG Chocolate expecting I’d find some use for it.

I really loved the blue Chocolate too. Summer '09

But then, during one of my super inspiring recycling trips to Whole Foods, its cell phone recycling campaign caught my attention. The company has partnered with Secure the Call, a national coalition providing emergency-only cell phones to those in need. Secure the Call plays the role of middle man, collecting, sorting through and refurbishing the phones to give to law enforcement agencies, domestic violence shelters and senior citizen centers in 49 states to redistribute to those who need them. This is such a worthy cause that will put my phone to much better use than it would be if it continued to sit on my cluttered desk.

The cluttered desk the phone has spent the better part of the past four months on.

Seeing the Secure the Call barrel at the store got me thinking about all the other charities that could use our phone donations. All I really knew was that many school and church groups accept them as donations for fundraisers. Putting Google to work, I found there are charities for just about any cause who will gladly accept our phones and several who will distribute them to others. Here is just a sample of what I found:

Recycling for Charities

Cell Phones for Soldiers


Goodwill Industries

Although there are so many options for donations, at some point, it will be time for the phone to move on to yet another phase and new life through the recycling of its parts. Through its initiative, Wireless…The New Recyclable, CTIA-The Wireless Association, an international nonprofit organization that represents the wireless communications industry, notes that handsets can be recycled to recover plastics, circuit boards can be recycled for precious metals like gold, silver and palladium as welll as copper, lead and zinc; and batteries are recycled for nickel, iron, cadmium and cobalt. Several of CTIA’s members participate in recycling programs and allow phones to be dropped off to them. Because so many parts of the phones can be reused, it doesn’t matter if they’re dented, scratched or even have broken screens.

According to the EPA, recycling a million cell phones reduces greenhouse gas emissions equal to taking 1,368 cars off the road for a year. Just make sure that before you do anything with the phone you’re giving up, you erase your personal data. One way to do that is with ReCellular’s Data Eraser.

So now, maybe next time you’re standing in a wireless store, debating on whether you really need the latest smart phone, you can at least put your mind at ease knowing your older phone can life on long after you’re done with it.


3 Comments Add yours

  1. Amie Street says:

    I think I’ve personally had 8 or 9 phones in 10 years. Not all new mind you. And when I get a new phone I tend to pass it or if mine brakes I’m the recipient of a used phone. But, I know people who have drawers full of ‘backup’ phones. That’s crazy. And to think they could be serving a purpose!
    thanks for sharing

  2. Markus says:

    Thank you for this post. I just realized I’ve never actually thrown away my old cell phones. Aside from giving away one I bought in Australia, all the others still lie around at home. I’ve never been up do date with the newest models either, and so I’m still using my second phone ever, which must be more than 6 years old by now. But now I think I know what to do with the 3 or 4 I have in my drawer…

  3. knitnkwilt says:

    I would add to your good advice to seek out an e-stewards certified electronics recycler–their criteria are strong and assure that phones won’t be dumped on third world countries for disposal and/or handling to recycle in less than safe conditions.

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