Fighting e-waste one mobile phone at a time

ReCellular handles thousands of unwanted handsets every day, fixing them up for resale or sending them to be melted down and recycled
  • Brad Reed (Network World)
  • 25 November, 2008 09:42

With most Americans switching their mobile handsets once every 18 months, the need to find safe ways to dispose of old mobile phones has only grown. ReCellular, a self-described "electronics-sustainability" firm based in the US, has spent the past two decades working with the US-based Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association (CTIA) to become a major recycler and reseller of mobile handsets and accessories. Every day, ReCellular processes thousands of unwanted handsets and either fixes them for resale or sends them off to be melted down and recycled. ReCellular Vice President Mike Newman spoke with Brad Reed about how his company is helping to reduce e-waste, as well as how enterprises can benefit from donating their mobile devices for reuse and recycling.

When did ReCellular come into existence?

We've been around since 1991, which means that we've been around long enough to be called an overnight success. [laughs] Initially, our business revolved around leasing mobile phones to users back when a handset would cost thousands of dollars. But when carriers started subsidizing their phones at dramatically lower costs, we were stuck with a lot of old phones. It was then that we transitioned from a leasing company to a used phone sales company.

What is the need that you're trying to meet?

As mobile phones have become more ubiquitous, we estimate that there are between 100 million and 130 million phones that are thrown away every year. That's a tremendous glut and it poses questions on what we should do with tech we no longer want or need. What we do is run the mobile phone industry's program for Verizon, AT&T, Motorola and other major industry players. They use us to handle their recycling program.

How big of a problem is electronic waste?

One phone on its own is pretty small, but when you do the math on the millions of phones discarded every year, it's quite dramatic. And if you include the batteries and all the different components within the phones, then in the aggregate it's pretty big. E-waste is seen as an up and coming issue, and government and interest groups are only starting to see how big of a problem it is.

What parts of mobile phones can actually be recycled and what parts still have to be thrown out?

We have "zero landfill" policy, which means that we don't just recycle handsets, but also batteries and chargers. Even the leather holsters that people use as mobile phone cases can be ground up and used as carpet backing material. When a mobile phone is sent to a recycling center, its electronic components are first ground up inside massive shredders and are then smelted -- that is, they heated up at high temperatures so their base metals are separated from one another and are able to be reused.

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Do you do the recycling at your Michigan headquarters or do you send the phones elsewhere for that?

Our specialty is reuse and collection. We receive between 20,000 and 25,000 phones every day, and we sort them into two major categories: the reusable products and the products that are obsolete. The obsolete handsets go to a recycling plant in Chicago, while the reusable phones go through testing and have personal content removed before they are resold as used handsets.

25,000 handsets every day is a lot. How do you process them?

We have more than 400 employees here that use an automated processing system to test which phones are still usable and which ones aren't. It's definitely an improvement from when I started working here five years ago when we literally just had a big table where phones would get dumped on and sorted manually.

What is your primary target market for selling used phones?

There is a surprisingly large market for used phones domestically. A lot of consumers don't want to sign two-year contracts with carriers and this is a great alternative to having to pay hundreds of dollars for new phones. We also have significant markets around the world, including Asia and Latin America.

Can you talk a bit about the program you've developed to help enterprise users safely dispose of their mobile devices?

A lot of companies have started to wake up to the potential impact of what could happen when their employees are done using their BlackBerries and they have company-sensitive information on them. We've designed solutions to help make sure they aren't at risk from a data security standpoint. We will work with companies to get phones out of employees' hands and into safe recycling centers. Companies have traditionally not done much to collect phones when employees are done with them, so we'll customize our solutions to make sure they are collecting them up and to make sure that when they are done using them that all sensitive data is destroyed.