Cellphone recycling saves money, curbs environmental damage, but it’s still underused

With near-constant updates to trade up for, the shelf lives of smartphones are shrinking.
With near-constant updates to trade up for, the shelf lives of smartphones are shrinking. Star file photo

A staggering number of new smartphones keep popping up on the market — somewhere between 60 and 70 models every year. And because almost every new cellphone is replacing one that’s no longer wanted, a sprawling cellphone recycling and buyback industry has been created in recent years.

The recyclers can help environmentally-friendly consumers upgrade to Amazon’s recently announced Fire Phone, for instance, without feeling guilty. And they can help offset the cost of that newer phone. Marci Verbrugge-Rhind, a spokeswoman for the Sprint Corp., said a used phone can earn up to $300 in store credit.

But despite the benefits to recycling phones, the expanding industry still has a long way to grow. Just under 12 percent of cellphones are collected for recycling, says the most recent Environmental Protection Agency report on the topic, and Americans instead send 152 million old phones to landfills each year.

The stream of old phones won’t let up any time soon, either. The average cellphone shelf life had shrunk to 21 months in 2010, according to a Recon Analytics report. And that figure probably shortened further as wireless carriers, led by T-Mobile, shifted from strict two-year contracts to terms that encourage more frequent upgrades.

Trading in

What happens when a phone is traded in?

“The short answer,” Verbrugge-Rhind said, “is it goes back into other customers’ hands” —from savvy Americans getting discounts on almost-new iPhones to emerging-nation workers getting their first phones.

Most carriers and electronic stores — and hundreds of websites — offer incentives to keep phones from being thrown away or shoved into the back of a desk drawer. Those phones then go through a process that wipes all of their data and are sold back into the market, used for parts or melted down to pure commodities. So, many traded-in and donated phones wind up back where they started.

The cycle usually begins in phone carrier locations or electronics stores. Sprint Corp., which prides itself on its various environmental efforts, was the first carrier to launch a program back in 2001. The company says it re-collects 47 percent of the cellphones it sells and in 13 years has kept 59 million phones out of landfills.

Verizon Wireless said it was recycling 31 percent of its devices by the end of last year. AT&T does not disclose its recycling rate but said it recycled 487,000 pounds of electronic waste last year.

Electronics retailers such as Best Buy also have buyback programs. Emily Nelson, an assistant store manager at Best Buy’s Overland Park location, said her location alone recycled 10 to 20 phones every day.

Nelson said the majority of traded-in phones are only 18-26 months old and tend to still be in good shape. Smart phones such as the iPhone 4, iPhone 4s and generations of Samsung Galaxy phones are frequently ditched — because the people who bought them in the first place are the sort who like to have the latest and upgrade often.

Both stores offer store credit for the trade-ins. The credit earned at Best Buy can be used on anything in the store, but usually goes toward a newer phone. The same goes for Sprint.

“Especially in this culture, everybody wants the latest and greatest,” Verbrugge-Rhind said.

Back into service

No matter where a phone is recycled, the data on it is cleared. Most places will wipe the data from a phone in front of a customer, effectively erasing all of your photos, contacts, texts and data. Then it heads to a facility, where it’s reconfirmed that the device is completely clean.

Then phones have to be evaluated. Some are fit to be refurbished, and others are so far gone they have to be recycled. If there isn’t any way to put life back into a phone, it’s sent off to be responsibly recycled.

To ensure that recyclers, refurbishers and processers are handing cellphones responsibly, consumers can check if a company is E-Stewards certified. The certification goes only to companies that do not use prison labor, child labor or sweatshops. They also cannot dump hazardous e-waste in landfills or ship it to developing countries.

One company that focuses on recycling is Electronic Recyclers International Co., headquartered in Fresno, Calif. Started in 2002, the company recycled 10,000 pounds of electronic waste in its first month, CEO John Sherigan said. They expect to recycle 25 million this month.

Unusable electronics can be broken down into pure commodities — such as copper, silver and gold — or they can be used for parts. Nelson said the vast majority of phones Best Buy collects are farmed for parts. Sometimes they go to fix phones that are under Best Buy’s Geek Squad Protection, a service that repairs electronics. Other times, they’re resold in secondary markets.

Ninety percent of the phones Sprint buys back are eventually refurbished and resold, the company says. The 10 percent that can’t be refurbished have been melted down to become jewelery, battery packs, car parts, plumbing faucets and even part of the bronze lion statue outside of the MGM Grand in Las Vegas.

Phones that are capable of a new life are sent to refurbishing factories — Electronic Recyclers also covers that operation.

“The phones really aren’t in bad shape, but we all want the next generation,” Shegerian said. “So there’s a ton of buyers that buy that or buy this from secondary or tertiary (sales and services) markets and they’re reused. Not everybody can afford new. None of that stuff is going to a landfill anymore.”

One phone recycler, eRecyclingCorps of Irving, Texas, has an office in Overland Park that works with U.S. phone companies and retailers to set up recycling programs. Mary Bristow, vice president of marketing and communications, said the company sends most of the phones it collects to insurance and warranty programs, wholesale distributors and cellular resellers, where they can be sold at a discounted price.

Many markets outside the U.S. aren’t subsidized, Bristow said. To keep consumer costs down, carriers offset the real cost of cellphones with contracts. Without subsidies, the upfront cost of a smartphone can reach up to $800.

“We make an affordable, high quality phone available to someone who would otherwise not be able to afford one,” Bristow said.

Brightstar Corp. started in Miami and was built on redistributing those dumped phones. Patrick Burns, the vice president of buyback and trade-in at Brightstar, said the latest numbers say 40 percent of refurbished devices stay stateside, but he personally thinks that estimate is a little high.

When there isn’t a demand for a certain model of a phone domestically, Brightstar will use its global locations to reach customers. They distribute to 51 countries around the world, including areas in the Asia Pacific, Europe, Middle East, Africa, China and Japan regions.

So that’s the long answer. When you trade in an old phone, it can end up as a fully refurbished phone in someone else’s hands, or as several tiny parts in dozens of other people’s refurbished phones. Or a faucet. And it could be anywhere in the world.

To reach Molly Duffy, call 816-234-4072 or email

Plenty to save

For every million cell phones recycled, the EPA estimates, 35 thousand pounds of copper, 772 pounds of silver, 75 pounds of gold, and 33 pounds of palladium can be recovered.

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