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A used cell phone might be the perfect connection
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"It's actually a bit of a frustration for us," Newman admits. "The U.S. technology is only utilized by about 20 to 25 percent of the world's cellular subscribers, so consequently we can't sell to most of the wireless users in the world; we're confined to this narrow slice. As GSM gets better established here, we will have more GSM phones that we can export."

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Save the cellular planet
There's another compelling reason to consider a used cell phone: You may help save the planet.

Cell phones contain a number of toxic components, including lead, arsenic, beryllium, cadmium and antimony, that, when buried in landfills or incinerated, present a serious threat to the food chain, even in small quantities.

According to Bette Fishbein, senior fellow for Inform, a nonprofit environmental group, the sheer number of handsets (one billion worldwide) multiplied by their brief lifespan (18 months on average) and easy disposability makes cell phones the perfect example of our failure to address recycling of all electronic gadgets. Inform estimates that 100 million cell phones will be retired in 2005 alone. By contrast, only 2.5 million phones were collected by the nation's four major take-back programs from 1999 to early 2003.

"The good news is, the cell phone industry does acknowledge that it has a responsibility. They have set up the Wireless Foundation that runs a lot of take-back programs," says Fishbein. "Industry has traditionally taken the stand that waste is a municipal responsibility; why look at us? The fact that the wireless industry has a program is significant. The negative aspect is that the amount they take back is totally insignificant."

So far, worldwide environmental initiatives have surrounded, if not conquered, the problem. The Basel Convention, the United Nations environmental initiative, prohibits its signatories from exporting toxic scrap. Two new European measures, the WEEE Directive (Directive on Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment) and the RoHS Directive (Restriction of the Use of Certain Hazardous Substances), set a reuse-recycling target of 65 percent for all electrical and electronic products and an elimination of certain toxic substances altogether by 2006.

"Any technological changes that are going to come out of the WEEE-RoHS directives are going to have direct impact here," Fishbein says. "If industry switches to an alternative to lead solder, that's going to be global, so the design changes being pressed forward by WEE/RoHS are probably going to be applied here as well."

What is more problematic is getting U.S. manufacturers to agree on a collection model; some prefer to do so on a voluntary, industry-wide scale through the Wireless Foundation. Others prefer to run their own take-back programs. But since current collection efforts together only manage to recover a negligible percentage of all discarded phones, it's safe to say there is room for improvement.

What's more, the new U.S. cell phone portability rule is likely to result in more "churn" (users jumping to different service providers), and hence more discarded cell phones in the near future.

Inform continues to lobby for extended producer responsibility that would put the onus on industry, not only to retrieve its cell phones, but to redesign them so that toxic components such as rechargeable batteries can be easily removed.

Include the chargers in that redesign, as well.

"We've been pushing for universal adapters so you can use the same chargers for different products," say Fishbein. "When you're talking about waste, the chargers are a huge problem."

Newman believes ReCellular's eco-friendly, for-profit business model may help the industry clean up its disposable problem.

"I'm very, very hard pressed to think of any other enterprise that serves so many needs. We're helping the environment with our no-landfill policy," he says. "Last year, between 250 and 350 tons of cell phones were kept out of landfills. So the environment is winning."

Jay MacDonald is a contributing editor based in Mississippi.

-- Posted: July 12, 2004




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