Electronics Boom, E-Cycling Lags

by | Nov 23, 2009

ralph reidHow many people around the world own a cell phone today?

About 4 billion cell phones are in the pockets of men and women around the world – half of the global population. According to the Pew Internet & American Life project, cell phone ownership among U.S. adults rose almost 10 percent in just one year – from 77 percent in early 2008 to 85 percent in April 2009. Yet how many of these cell phones are recycled once outdated or unwanted?

Just 10 percent of cell phones are recycled each year in the U.S. Americans annually dispose of 140 million cell phones, and send 65,000 tons of e-waste to our nation’s landfills. While 40 to 50 percent of Americans recycle common materials regularly, the simple truth about e-cycling, the reuse or recycling of electronics, is that many U.S. consumers don’t do enough of it.

The implication of low e-cycling rates is significant. Millions of unused cell phones and wireless devices are cluttering homes and offices or ending up in landfills. Most of these electronics contain valuable metals – such as gold, silver and copper – that could be recycled into jewelry, electronics, lawn furniture, car parts, shingles, plastic containers and more. Few of these devices are biodegradable and many contain a wide range of chemicals and materials that recycling facilities – not the local landfill – are best suited to handle.

What is the solution? Increase e-cycling.

E-ycling reduces waste, extends the life of reusable materials contained within electronics and decreases the need for virgin materials essential in manufacturing new products – to the benefit of your organization’s bottom line, customers’ wallets, and the health of the environment. Industry has a responsibility to engage those who buy our products in eco-friendly practices. Industry must not only establish and uphold high environmental standards within our business practices, policies, and programs, but also must educate consumers and provide easy-to-access, innovative e-cycling programs and initiatives.

Actively communicating about your e-cycling programs is vital. A recent Sprint survey found that a majority of all wireless customers are unfamiliar with handset recycling and few believe that their carrier is doing a good job recycling. Industry needs to hear this message: When we fail to get the word out about e-cycling, we fail our consumers and our industry.

In addition to simply keeping the public better informed about electronics recycling programs, studies show that incentives help to engage consumers. A “feel good” incentive – such as contributing to a charitable organization by recycling – can motivate customers to mail in retired wireless devices. A buy-back program that “pays” the consumer for the current value of a device can also be effective to increase e-cycling.

Ease and convenience, as proven by the ubiquitous “blue bin” in front of homes across the U.S., encourage active participation in recycling programs. Including postage-paid mailers in the boxes of new wireless devices or making them available through the Web promotes e-cycling. Ease and convenience can begin at home or point-of-purchase, bringing e-cycling as close as the curbside mailbox.

Innovation is imperative. Industry must find new, up-and-coming and creative ways to encourage increased levels of wireless recycling – be it through public-private partnerships or other unique programs. For example, EPA’s Plug-In To eCycling program, a partnership between government and industry, centers on increasing public awareness and improving device recovery. As Plug-In to eCycling partners, Sprint, AT&T, Verizon Wireless, T-Mobile, Samsung, LG Electronics, Sony Ericsson, Motorola, Nokia, Office Depot, Staples and Best Buy have each pledged to make it as simple as possible for consumers to recycle retired phones.

There are no “magic bullets” to increase e-cycling and reduce e-waste. Widespread application of new or unfamiliar environmentally intelligent programs and principles will take time. But it is industry’s opportunity to take an active leadership role – advancing consumer education, promoting engagement, and implementing innovations that lead to long-term sustainability.

Ralph Reid is Vice President of Corporate Social Responsibility at Sprint.

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