California may have just passed a law mandating that cell phone retailers have a phone recycling program in place by July 2006, but that doesn't mean that (a) you have to live in California to recycle your phone, (b) your retailer is the best place to do it, or (c) you have to wait until 2006. Cellphones contain measurable levels of arsenic, cadmium, antimony, beryllium, copper, nickel and mercury, as well as lead in sufficient quantities to be classified as toxic waste. Simply throwing away that old phone is a bad idea.
"Recycling" the phone generally means putting it back into service elsewhere, often in a low-income or developing world region. Recycling service CollectiveGood describes their efforts this way:
CollectiveGood attempts to recycle donated phones back into reuse in the developing world (usually Latin America or the Caribbean), where they serve useful, longer lives and offer affordable communications, in many cases offering families their first modern communications. This helps bridge the digital divide, improving the quality of life for people in the developing world, and even helps their economies too.
In addition, Social Design Notes tells us of a new program by the New York City Department of Sanitation to collect electronic devices for recycling (or, at least, to keep them out of the waste stream). The efforts focus on old computers, which can be even more toxic than mobile phones.
the non-profit at which I am nominally employed has published a couple of reports on cell phone toxicity and recycling programs, and we're in the middle of conducting discreet surveys of existing retailer recycling programs. I am not privy to all the details of the work so far and don't mean to 'leak' the results too early but it seems pretty clear so far that the mandated retailer-run recycling programs are just about completely worthless, unfortunately.
none of the stores have prominently displayed or advertised the service, most employees were only dimly aware of the program and couldn't answer specific questions, and many weren't even aware of the programs' existence. in most cases, the program consisted of a cardboard box in the back where a handful of used phones were stored for no apparent reason. more pressure needs to be put on the retailers to take a more proactive approach - considering the frequency with which consumers switch phones it shouldn't be too difficult to get them to bring in their old one for recycling when they get a new one. regulations might help, but this is one of those problems where an effective public advocacy campaign could actually make a bigger difference -instituting takeback programs shouldn't be too onerous for the retailers, and a bit of public awareness could go a long way.
it all seems cool but i wonder: who will recycle the cell phones and computers in the developing countries? yep such a phone can enrich lives of people there for a while but already short-life batteries will end up on endless piles of waste anyway. will companies make new batteries for discontinued phones? can developing countries afford high power consumption of old computer screens and desktops? i was a volunteer in angola and the next time i will bring to that orphanage an ibook. i believe the guys will have more fun with it than with ten tricky slow hungry boxes...