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Dennis Jones is a Jamaican-born international economist, who has lived most of the time in the UK and USA, and latterly in Guinea, west Africa. He moved back to the Caribbean in 2007. This blog contains his observations on life on this small eastern Caribbean island, as well as views on life and issues on a broader landscape, especially the Caribbean and Africa.

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Monday, January 21, 2008

What recycling looks like: calling all cellphone owners

If you have ever owned a piece of electronic equipment you should start to think about what that has done to the world's environment. However, if you have owned a cellphone it will be heartening to know that it contributes less to world waste than most other electronic gadgets.

A superb article in last week's New York Times magazine entitled "The Afterlife of Cellphones" vividly shows how this particular piece of must-have technology has created a whole subsector of international economic activity that really shows what globalization is all about. In brief, unwanted cellphones in the USA find themselves going through an array of second-hand dealers, many finding their way to eastern Europe and developing countries, especially in Africa (where cellphones are now 75 percent of all phones). Their contents, including any precious metals, can also find themselves recycled into making other phones or as inputs for other products. This latter business, called "e-waste" thrives on the fact that Americans threw away 3 million tons of household electronics in 2006, and is the fastest element of municipal waste. But it includes hazardous materials and precious metals such as copper, gold, platinum, and silver. A Belgian company, Umicore, reclaims those materials from televisions, computers, cellphones and more. Amazingly, by weight, only 1/2 a percent of e-waste Umicore takes cannot be sent back into the world in usable form.

Back to the phones. Americans chuck away their phones on average every 12 months [and I lose my own with the same regularity], and 4 of 5 Americans own cellphones [but this hides the fact that many own more than one phone]. Another company, named Collective Good, founded in 2000 by a young MBA graduate named Seth Heine, is in the business of recycling cellphones and a portion of every phone's resale or scrap value goes to one of over 500 causes selected by phone donors. The founder has gone a stage further and formed an online venture, GreenPhone.com, which pays donors directly for their phones, and then plants a tree for every check it writes. What is interesting about these ventures is that they stop old cellphones ending up in landfills, which is in marked contrast to old computers.

Why the rapid change? Fashion. The love of fashion means that nearly 60 percent of phones are replaced because people get tired of the design. About 470 different models of phones are on sale in the USA and about 16 new ones come out every month, many slight variations of existing models. Crazy!

While the US is big meat in this story so far, the Chinese are going be an important part of this story in the long run, as they currently dispose of 200-300 million phones a year. (I don't have figures for India but they may be even more significant.) That disposal volume is huge compared to estimated world sales of 1.2 billion phones a year, of which nearly 60 percent were replacements.

So, for once we should maybe follow the US lead. At the least we should search for our discarded cellphones and get them to a recycler: we could help a good cause and of course clear our conscience. (Several organizations recycle cellphones to causes such as battered mothers.) Note, however, that Americans turn in less than 1 percent of phones for recycling; instead, most go into drawers (hoarding an estimated US$ 300 million of precious metals). So, get searching in your drawers at home and at work and see what you can find.

2 comments:

ESTEBAN AGOSTO REID said...

KUDOS to recycling!!

Sell iPhone said...

There are also other services where you can recycle and sell your electronics and turn them into cash like http://www.cashforberrys.com. I sold my electronics to them and gave me a good pay. :)