NRDC's This Green Life
A Journal of Sorts
March 2004 / Links updated 2012

My teenage daughter and I have run through ten cell phones in five years, which amounts to one a year each. That's considerably worse than the national average (a new phone every 18 months), but we have our excuses. Three were replacements for lost or stolen phones. And one was a gift from my brother-in-law -- a GSM phone for a family trip to Italy where the wireless networks differ.

True, we also changed services several times, but only to get better value. One thing we never did was run after the latest phones. Yet somehow, we always ended up with them anyway. From my daughter's perspective, we really lucked out.

My son, playing phone games I, on the other hand, am appalled by our wastefulness -- so much so, that I actually took comfort when my son began using our old phones to play games. If only it had lasted. Now, he's of an age (ten!) where he expects a working phone of his own. His friends who travel alone to school have them, and so will he when he joins their ranks. That will raise our total to 11. The family record grows more dismal all the time.

Currently, we're housing five old phones, in addition to the GSM phone we're saving for our next trip to Europe, in the hopes that it won't become obsolete by then. Though the old phones are useless, they can't be dumped -- they're packed with dangerous materials. If they were sent to a landfill, they could contaminate the soil and water; if incinerated, they'd poison the air.

The materials in question include persistent toxins, such as arsenic and cadmium, which linger in the environment without breaking down. They also include bioaccumulative toxins, such as mercury and lead, which collect in the tissues of plants and animals. These PBTs, as they're called, are associated with damage to the nervous and reproductive systems, developmental problems and cancer. Fetuses and children are at highest risk. But the danger isn't limited to humans. Animals are also affected -- particularly those at the top of the food chain. Remember the near extinction of the bald eagle from DDT? That's the most famous case in point. The eagles fed on fish where DDT had accumulated, and couldn't produce thick enough shells to reproduce.

My old phones So, it wouldn't be responsible to discard those extra phones. Still, I can't hold onto them forever. In fact, I've decided I have to get rid of them before we buy that new phone for my son. To that end, I've looked into the phone donation and recycling programs that I've heard so much about lately, and what I've discovered is good news. There are numerous programs, both local and national, with convenient drop-off locations, that take both working and broken phones. The phones are refurbished and put to use again if possible, or their parts are recycled. Proceeds from their resale -- or the restored phones themselves -- are donated to non-profits.

It's as good an option as we're likely to find in our largely unregulated marketplace. One day we may see "extended producer responsibility" laws in this country -- as Europe already has -- which hold companies accountable for their products throughout the products' life cycles. Until then, the onus is on us. Recycling programs are there -- we just need to take advantage of them.

—Sheryl Eisenberg


Extended Producer Responsibility, or EPR, is a policy that holds producers accountable for the environmental impacts of their products through all stages of their life cycles. In particular, EPR gives producers responsibility for the take-back, recycling and disposal of their products. Typical EPR regulations insist that waste management costs be front-loaded in the price of the products (rather than charged to consumers at the end). This provides producers with an incentive for sustainable product design to keep prices low.

Mandatory EPR is in place throughout Western Europe and across much of Asia. The U.S. is one of the few industrialized countries without it. The alternative favored here, by the Environmental Protection Agency, is Product Stewardship (sometimes also known, confusingly, as Extended Product Responsibility). This holds all parties equally responsible for products: manufacturers, retailers, users, and disposers. While it, too, encourages environmentally sound end-of-life strategies for products, it does not require businesses to implement them and provides no incentives for sustainable design.

American take-back programs, such as the phone recycling programs discussed here, are in large part an attempt to ward off stronger regulations, such as EPR.

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Sheryl Eisenberg, a long-time advisor to NRDC, posts a new This Green Life every month. Sheryl makes her home in Tribeca (NYC), where—along with her children, Sophie and Gabby, and husband, Peter—she tries to put her environmental principles into practice. No fooling. Read more about Sheryl.

My son (at left), playing phone games.


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Calling All Cell Phones

Cell Phones, a Poster Child for Extended Producer Responsibility

CTIA (industry association)
Wireless: the New Recyclable

PBTs and You

What is Product Stewardship

Recycling Programs. Most phone recycling programs refurbish working -- and broken -- phones from any carrier or manufacturer, with or without their batteries and adapters. Proceeds from sales of the refurbished phones are donated to non-profits, or the phones themselves are given.

AT&T's Reuse and Recycle benefits Keep America Beautiful. Drop off your phone at any AT&T store.

FlipSwap benefits numerous national and local organizations. You get to pick which one you want to assist. If you choose the Sierra Club, you can drop the phone off at any Staples store. Otherwise, you'll need to mail the phone in.

NexTel Community Connect benefits the Red Cross. Drop off your phone at any Nextel store.

ReCellular benefits several organizations. You pick which you want to assist. Look up the nearest drop-off location on their website.

Sprint's program benefits people with disabilities. Drop off your phone at any Sprint store.

Verizon's Hope Line benefits victims of domestic abuse. Drop off your phone at any Verizon store.

Before you donate a phone to any program, be sure to deactivate your service. It's also a good idea to clear off personal information -- your phone book, call records, memos and text messages. While recyclers promise to do it for you, who wants that information in others' hands?

The Mad Hatter from Alice in Wonderland
Mad as a Hatter from PBTs. Exposure to mercury, one of the PBTs found in cell phones, can damage the brain and kidneys. The trembling, loss of coordination, slurred speech, memory loss, depression and other symptoms that result can make a person seem positively mad. As mercury poisoning was once an occupational hazard of hat-making (when felt hats were made with mercury), the condition came to be known as Mad Hatter Syndrome. Hence, the expression, "mad as a hatter."

Sheryl Eisenberg is a web developer and writer. With her firm, Mixit Productions (, she brought NRDC online in 1996, designed NRDC's first websites, and continues to develop special web features for NRDC. She created and, for several years, wrote the Union of Concerned Scientists' green living column, Greentips, and has designed and contributed content to many nonprofit sites.

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