Discussion prompt: How many phones have you owned in your life? What do you do with the old one when you buy a new one: trash, donate, or recycle it? Where do recycled phones go?
Although I’ve been fortunate enough to have owned five phones in my life, it had never crossed my mind to recycle the old phones after I stopped using them. As a result, many of my old phones were sentenced to spend the remainder of their lifetime in trash: beginning in my garbage can and ending in a distant landfill.
While there are some cellphone owners that are diligent about recycling their cellphones, there are many others who share my ignorance. In the United States, roughly 90% of adults own a mobile phone of some kind, and on average, these owners replace their mobile phone once every 22 months. This means that Americans purchase 119 million phones every year, and of those new phones, only about 15 million will be recycled. This means that 104 million phones share the same fate as my old cellphones: becoming a permanent contribution to our country’s growing e-waste.
Of the portion of old cellphones that do get recycled, what happens to them? First, it’s important to understand that a primary motivation for recycling phones is to salvage the precious and valuable materials the phones contain, which are generally nickel, cadmium, mercury, and lead. Given this fiscal incentive, many recyclers lose interest in the environmental benefits their work can create and choose to neglect these green benefits in exchange for larger monetary returns. This compromise sometimes results in the practice of informal recycling, which uses primitive stripping and burning methods to extract precious materials from the phones. Unfortunately, these methods generally produce pollution and introduce harmful toxins to those performing the processing. While there are a few e-waste recycling companies that value the environment’s health, they lack the capacity to process the sheer volume of e-waste being produced, and consequently, a lot of excess e-waste is sent to foreign countries for unregulated and sometimes harmful e-waste processing, such as informal recycling as mentioned above.
While there are efforts to recycle phones, it seems as though all phones are not recycled equally; however, this only creates a great opportunity for innovation in this sphere that will ultimately help to protect our environment.
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