130 million mobile telephones discarded annually in US by 2005

Mobile phone use in the USA reached 128 million sets last year, which will be used for an average of only 18 months before being discarded. A new report predicts that by 2005 there will 130 million discarded every year, creating a stockpile of 500 million unwanted phones hidden away in closets that will eventually reach the waste stream.

The problem isn’t restricted to mobile phones, says Waste in the Wireless World, published by independent research organisation, INFORM. The problem also applies to other wireless electronic devices, such as personal digital assistants, portable e-mail devices, pagers, pocket PCs, and MP3 music players, all of which are made of similar materials.

“Because these devices are so small, their environmental impacts might appear to be minimal,” said Bette Fishbein, INFORM Senior Fellow, and report author. “But the growth in their use has been so enormous that the environmental and public health impacts of the waste they create are a significant concern. Now is the time to address them.”

Currently, Europe and the Japanese are leading the way in controlling electronic waste, such as through the up-coming European directive on Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) that demands producer responsibility and take-back schemes (see related story). Australia has also been breaking new waste mobile phone ground, with the first nation-wide take-back scheme.

“Despite the lack of any current or pending federal legislation addressing the end-of-life management of electronics, US government and industry are likely to be influenced by tends abroad,” said Fishbein.

In the US, although there is no relevant federal legislation, there is some state legislation such as manufacturer responsibility to take-back programmes. “State legislation is being considered in California, Massachusetts, and Minnesota,” said Fishbein. “Additionally, US manufacturers will have to follow the applicable requirements abroad for internationally marketed goods by eliminating toxic substances from these products and funding their take-back. With such changes on the horizon, American industry has even more reason to get ahead of the curve.”

But there is bad news in the form of a developing throw-away culture for electronic goods with an increasing number of goods, such as mobile phones, being marketed as ‘disposable’, says INFORM.

The report has a number of suggestions to assist with the problem. Firstly, there are design-related recommendations, such as reducing the use of toxic substances, particularly lead and brominated flame retardants. Secondly, there need to be standardised design elements so that users are not forced to purchase a new phone when changing service providers or travelling abroad. Mobile phones also need to be designed for disassembly, reuse, and recycling, says the report.

At the end of the phone’s life, the report recommends that US manufacturers should implement effective take-back programmes – particularly for batteries, including targets for collection and reuse/recycling, combined with reporting and enforcement mechanisms. Consumers can also be encouraged to play their part, with financial incentives, such as deposit/refund systems to encourage the return of mobile phones and other devices for recycling and reuse.

“Cell phones and other wireless electronic devices will inevitably play an increasingly important role in domestic and global communications,” said INFORM President Joanna Underwoood. “It is time to implement programmes to recover them for reuse and recycling in order to avoid contamination of our environment and significant threats to human health.”

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