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It’s Easy Being Green: Less Is More

SOURCE: AP/Paul Sancya

A pile of cell phones is seen at ReCellular in Dexter, MI. Cell phone recycling is on the rise, but the underlying demand for product upgrades continues to drive raw materials consumption and emissions from the industry.

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Cell phones and mobile devices have fundamentally changed our lives, from the way we interact with other people and businesses to the way we surf the web. But while the ubiquity of cell phones has made us more connected than ever before, these electronics are not without their setbacks.

First off, cell phones are big carbon emitters. The cell phone industry’s emissions add up to about 183 million tons of carbon dioxide annually—roughly equal to the automobile and airline industries. Mobile technologies can reduce emissions from other sectors—such as the automobile and airplane industries—by reducing travel emissions with innovations like telecommuting. But by and large the cell phone industry, like other consumer electronics industries, is focused on constantly upgrading its products, which leads to more consumption of raw materials and more emissions from extracting the materials, manufacturing, and transporting the finished products.

It’s also old news that cell phone demand has helped drive the decades-long conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Eighty percent of the world’s columbite-tantalite, or coltan, comes from the DRC. Coltan is a vital element in creating capacitors, the electronic elements that control the flow inside miniature circuit boards and are used in almost all cell phones. The metallic ore is plundered by rebels to fund their war effort.

Then there’s electronic waste or e-waste, which makes up only 2 percent of trash in U.S. landfills but accounts for roughly 70 percent of heavy metals in those landfills and 70 percent of the overall toxic waste. Electronics also often contain lead and mercury, which can contaminate soil and drinking water. Even in small amounts, lead is harmful to humans, especially children.

Luckily, e-recyclers have been popping up everywhere, from your local cell phone store to services like eRecyclingCorps or RecycleMyCellPhone.org that help you mail your phone to a recycling center. Wired.com and YouRenew—which pays consumers to renew old electronics—have joined forces to create a gadget take-back program that aims to recycle 40,000 consumer electronics devices between April 22 and May 21. And last year ReCellular refurbished, resold, and recycled 5 million cell phones, meaning they diverted 1.6 million pounds of solid waste from landfills, including more than 600,000 pounds of hazardous materials.

Recycling cell phones helps reduce pollution that would be generated by manufacturing a new product, and many electronics recyclers are trying to make the process more responsible by signing the Electronics Recycler’s Pledge of True Stewardship, which says they promise not to export hazardous electronic parts to developing countries and dispose of equipment in incinerators that can specifically accommodate these toxic compounds.

There are also many charities, shelters, and local organizations that want your old phones. Cell Phones for Soldiers is just one program that sells your used cell phone and uses that money to purchase prepaid calling cards to send to members of the U.S. military deployed overseas, enabling them to call their families.

But there’s a bigger point to be made here: Recycling doesn’t change the market-driven consumer behavior that’s at the root of the problem. Cell phones are disposable by design and most people upgrade to a new phone after only 18 months. Recycling and buy-back programs make their money off of high collection numbers, which means they rely on our desire for more and more gadgets. Without greener and longer-lasting phones, people will still buy the latest model with the latest functions.

All this spending adds up. U.S. households spend roughly $1,400 annually on an average of 24 electronic items, according to the Consumer Electronics Association. It’s a cycle where gadgets are continually upgraded and consumers continue to buy them, leading to a continuation of the problems outlined above.

Recycling programs no doubt help, but perhaps a better approach would be for e-cycling companies to set super low recycling goals and super high resell goals so that more gadgets are kept in the consumer stream, which would reduce demand for new products and be a more efficient use of our precious resources. If we consume few gadgets during our lifetime, we’ll get the most out of the energy put into creating them and put the least pollution back into the environment.

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