Dear EarthTalk: The collective impact of all the iPhones and other devices we buy, use and then discard must be mind-boggling at this point. Has anyone quantified this and what can we do to start reducing waste from such items? — Jacques Chevalier, Boston, MA
With a record four million pre-orders for Apple’s best-selling iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus, it’s more evident than ever that consumers want the latest in smartphone technology at their fingertips. A new report by analysts at German market research firm GfK determined that global smartphone sales exceeded 1.2 billion units in 2014—a 23 percent increase over 2013.
With so many new smartphones and electronics being purchased, are users disposing of their older devices properly? According to U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) data, approximately 2,440,000 tons of electronics, such as computers, mobile devices and televisions, were disposed of in 2010. Twenty-seven percent, or 649,000 tons, of that “e-waste” was recycled. Because some materials in electronics, such as lead, nickel, cadmium and mercury, could pose risks to human health or the environment, the EPA “strongly supports” keeping used electronics out of landfills.
“Recycling electronic equipment isn’t quite as easy as leaving it in a bin in your front yard, as we’ve learned to do with paper and plastics, but the health and environmental benefits of recycling e-scrap are tremendous,” said EPA Region 5 Administrator Mary A. Gade. “Also, we know that half of the devices thrown away still work.”
If Americans recycled the approximately 130 million cell phones that are disposed of annually, enough energy would be saved to power more than 24,000 homes in a year. If we went ahead and recycled one million laptops, too, we would save the energy equivalent to the electricity used by 3,657 U.S. homes in a year. Furthermore, for every million cell phones we recycle, 35,274 pounds of copper, 772 pounds of silver, 75 pounds of gold and 33 pounds of palladium can be recovered. Recovering these valuable metals through recycling precludes the need for mining and processing that much new material from the Earth, thus not only conserving natural resources but preventing air and water pollution as well.
Thankfully, recycling old smartphones and other electronic devices is an easy, typically cost-free process for consumers. Electronics retailer Best Buy offers the most comprehensive appliance and electronics recycling program in the United States, with more than 400 pounds of product collected for recycling each minute the stores are open. Best Buy offers free recycling for most electronics and large appliances, regardless of where they were purchased, allowing the company to achieve its ambitious goal of recycling one billion pounds of electronics and appliances by the end of 2014.
Some charitable organizations, like Cell Phones for Soldiers, also offer free cell phone recycling. Since 2004, the non-profit has prevented more than 11.6 million cell phones from ending up in landfills. All cell phones donated to Cell Phones for Soldiers are sold either to electronic restorers or a recyclers, depending on the phone’s condition. The proceeds from the phones are used to purchase prepaid international calling cards for troops and provide emergency financial assistance to veterans. “Cell Phones for Soldiers truly is a lifeline,” says Robbie Bergquist, co-founder of the non-profit. “To withstand time apart and the pressure of serving our country, the family connection is a critical piece to survival.”