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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Cell Phone Conundrum

Air Date: Week of

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The FCC recently handed cell phone consumers a major victory. No longer will they have to commit to a new number when they switch carriers. As a result, millions of old phones could be discarded in the next year. Host Steve Curwood talks with Eric Most, a researcher for INFORM, about the looming problem of wireless waste.


CURWOOD: A recent ruling by the Federal Communications Commission has made it much easier for people with cell phones to part with their old models, and ring in with newer versions. That’s because folks who want to switch over to a new plan can now do so without the hassle of giving up their existing phone number. But their old phones probably won’t be compatible with the new service. So what to do with the millions of unwanted phones that are expected to be discarded in the coming year. Eric Most is senior research associate with INFORM, an environmental research group in New York City, and he studies cell phone recycling options. Eric, welcome.

MOST: Hi, how are you?

CURWOOD: So, tell me, how would this latest ruling on cell phone carriers effect the cell phone waste problem?

MOST: Well, it’s likely that millions of people will switch service providers in the new year as a result of the new ruling. And it’s unlikely that their phones will be compatible with the technology of the new carriers because of a lack of standardization within the industry. Therefore, we’re going to see a number of these phones discarded, and ending up in landfills and incinerators.

CURWOOD: Tell me right now, today, what kinds of phone recycling programs that are available in this country.

MOST: The largest programs in the U.S. are run by the wireless industry. For example there’s a donate-a-phone program, which comprises Sprint’s collection program and also the Call to Protect Program. There’s also the Verizon Hope Line program, and AT&T wireless’s Reuse and Recycling program.

CURWOOD: How successful have these programs been so far?

MOST: Basically, the U.S. collection programs are barely making a dent in the wireless waste stream. These programs in the U.S. are collecting less than one percent of cell phones discarded each year. In the period that Inform examined, which was 1999 through early 2003, these programs collected approximately three million phones, and this is in a period where hundreds of millions of phones were discarded.

CURWOOD: One of the most fascinating things that I found in your study, was that cell phones have a life span of only 18 months. Why is that? Why is that so short?

MOST: Unfortunately, it’s so short because of the way the system is set up. When people change service providers, because of a lack of standardization with in the industry, people usually have to get a new phone because their current phones will not work on the technology of the new service provider. Another problem is that phones keep changing. They keep coming out with the latest technology, and we’ve seen a lot of phones that are smart phones, and they’re capable of accessing to the Internet, they have music capability, etc. And people want this latest technology. But the way phones are designed, they’re not designed to be upgradable. People simply are taught to toss out the phone and buy a new one when they want a new product.

CURWOOD: What can people do to recycle their phones?

MOST: They can take their phones to a number of wireless retail stores near them. For example an AT&T store, a Verizon store, or a Sprint store. We’re starting to see drop-off receptacles at transportation centers such as Penn Station and Grand Central Station. One of the things that we would like to see is for the programs to make drop-off more convenient for consumers by establishing permanent collection receptacles at shopping malls, supermarkets, banks, and post offices. Places that are very visible, and they’re also places that people visit often.

CURWOOD: Eric Most is senior research associate with the New York City based research organization Inform. Eric, thanks for taking this time with me today.

MOST: You’re very welcome. Thank you.



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