From: Allison Bruce, Ventura County Star
Published March 9, 2006 12:00 AM

Companies Keep Cell Phones out of Trash and Turn Them into Cash

Starting this July, phone carriers in California will have to offer buyers a way to return their cell phone to be resold or recycled. Many carriers already offer programs, but the number of cell phones recycled each year is still lower than it should be.


Deborah Gutierrez has six old cell phones.


"They're all in my house, in my dresser," the Oxnard resident said while helping her mother buy a cell phone two weeks ago.


She sometimes gives a cell phone to a friend or trades one in for an upgrade, but most collect dust in a drawer.


Many people keep old phones, not realizing there are options beyond throwing away the phone, which has several toxic components harmful to the environment.


There are recycling programs, but often people don't know about them.


ReCellular Inc. in Michigan handles many used phones collected by carriers, usually through drop-boxes in their stores.


Marketing manager Angela Beaubien estimates about 1 percent of used phones are recycled and 130 million cell phones will end up in U.S. landfills this year.


A new law could help raise awareness. Beginning July 1, California cell phone retailers must provide a way for people to return used cell phones for reuse, recycling or proper disposal. Retailers, many of which already have cell recycling programs, will be required to advertise the service and distribute written information at the time of purchase.


The hope is that more customers will seek recycling programs. The law also could encourage companies to make it easier for customers, such as including an envelope for cell phone recycling in the box with the new phone.


Beaubien figures about 60 percent of the phones ReCellular receives can be refurbished and resold. The remaining 40 percent are recycled.


"It (recycling) is on the rise, especially as we create more and more awareness," she said. "Half the battle is just creating awareness."


With so many people jumping for the latest phone gadgetry, donated phones aren't always old, she said.


"We even get Motorola RAZRs now," she said.


Recycle Free Corp. in Thousand Oaks expanded from a printer cartridge recycling business, launched in 1997, to cell phone collection in 2002.


Co-owner and Vice President Paul Rycus said cell phone recycling was a natural fit for businesses that were already sending in their used inkjet and laser cartridges.


Clients, usually businesses, but also nonprofit organizations and government associations, hand over used cell phones using prepaid envelopes and boxes. Depending on the cell phone, companies can fetch from 50 cents to $100 for a working phone.


Many phones are older, non-working phones that are recycled for their components, he said. According to Rycus, those that can be refurbished are resold in the U.S. and abroad. Others become replacement phones or 911 phones, which can only be used to call for emergency help.


People wanting to recycle an old phone can go to the company's Web site to get a prepaid envelope, or pick one up at FedEx Kinko's, a company that is also a Recycle Free customer. People who recycle a phone this way don't receive any money.


"It's just the reward of doing the right thing to divert these from the landfill," Rycus said.


Some recycling programs not only keep cell phones out of landfills but help different charities.


For example, a group can collect phones for resale or recycling. Most older phones yield $1 to $3 for charity, while newer phones can bring in $10 or more, said Beaubien of ReCellular.


Verizon Wireless has the HopeLine program, in which the company accepts any type of used mobile phone to refurbish or recycle. The program also accepts old cell phone batteries and accessories, as well as dead rechargeable batteries.


While newer phones may be resold in the U.S., older refurbished phones are often sold overseas, said Ken Muche, public relations manager.


Verizon uses the proceeds to fund grants for domestic violence agencies or donates prepaid phones to women in shelters, Muche said.


"This goes beyond helping the environment, to helping people in dire situations," Muche said.


Sprint's Project Connect program accepts old phones for domestic violence shelters to be used as 911 phones. Others are recycled or sold. Proceeds go toward education.


"We have been trying as a company to raise awareness among our customers about the importance of this issue," said Sprint spokeswoman Kathleen Dunleavy.


Even zoos, such as the Smithsonian National Zoo and Santa Barbara Zoo, are collecting used cell phones as a way to raise money and keep them out of landfills. The zoos are working with ECO-Cell, which pays up to $15 for working cell phones.


The zoos support recycling phones not only because of the hazardous materials in them but also because an ore used in cell phones and other electronic components is mined in an area of the Congo where it has threatened endangered wildlife.


Robert Cota of Port Hueneme has about three or four old phones. He said he would consider donating a phone if it was for charity.


"I have no use for them," he said. "I don't know why I still have them."


Source: Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News


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