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Fighting e-waste one cell 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

By Brad Reed, Network World
November 24, 2008 04:06 PM ET

Network World - With most Americans switching their mobile handsets once every 18 months, the need to find safe ways to dispose of old cell phones has only grown. ReCellular, a self-described "electronics-sustainability" firm based in Dexter, Mich., has spent the past two decades working with the 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 Network World senior writer 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 cell 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 cell 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 cell 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 cell 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 cell phone cases can be ground up and used as carpet backing material. When a cell 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.

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.

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