Would you care to offer an opinion on what a person should do with his obsolete cell phone? Now, now... We don't want to hear about what you thought that guy who was talking on his cell phone during the movie should do with it... The bad manners of a few people aside, cell phones do pose a significant waste disposal problem for society.
INFORM, an environmental research organization partly funded by the EPA, has estimated that cell phones are typically used only for about 18 months before being replaced. Calling plans are often packaged with free or low-cost cell phones,
which often makes keeping your current phone economically disadvantageous. Thus, many cell phones face their demise before they have become technologically obsolete, and the waste stream gets not only the cell phones that are truly unusable, but also those that are simply no longer the best deal for the owner.
As of 2001 (the last year figures were available), there were 129 million cell phone users in the US, with 400 million users worldwide. In the coming years, as population and market penetration for cell phones both increase, the number of cell phones destined for the waste stream will continue rising. With such a short average lifespan for each cell phone, it's easy to perceive the magnitude of the cell phone disposal problem. INFORM estimates that by 2005, nearly 130 million cell phones will be discarded every year in the United States.
How does this affect the environment? In addition to the volume of landfill space that cell phones could take up, they also contain toxic chemicals such as:
- arsenic (used in some semiconductors)
- brominated compounds (used as flame retardants)
- lead (used in the solder that attaches components to circuit boards)
These and other cell-phone toxins enter the environment when discarded cell phones are incinerated or when rainwater leaches the materials out of landfilled phones. Many of the toxic compounds in cell phones are found on the EPA's list of "persistent, bioaccumulative, and toxic chemicals." EPA warns that these substances can cause a range of adverse human health effects, including damage to the nervous system, reproductive and developmental problems, and cancer. Eek! Call a doctor!
In the next Eco-Logical, we'll talk about how you can keep your cell phone from becoming a paperweight for all the unrecycled newspapers in the local landfill. In the meantime, we just want to mention that it's not true that our cell phone has the president on speed-dial #1. We did for a