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Laws to Give New Life to Used Cellphones

July 01, 2006|James S. Granelli | Times Staff Writer

Wireless customers typically swap out new cellphones about every 18 months and, starting today, new state laws require retailers to help keep all those used handsets and accessories out of landfills.

Sure, the phones are small, but put a million of them in a dump and you'll have a hazardous waste site.

Californians replaced 13 million handsets in 2004, the last year for which numbers are available. Only a small fraction were recycled.

The laws that take effect today, following up on a recent one that makes it illegal to toss cellphones in the trash, require retailers to offer recycling services so customers -- at no cost -- can drop off their old phones, rechargeable batteries and other accessories.

It's the latest effort to keep the rapidly growing pile of obsolete electronics out of landfills, where certain metals, plastics, acids and other hazardous materials can quickly turn an area into a toxic dump.

"Requiring electronics retailers to take back obsolete cellphones and rechargeable batteries will provide consumers with a much-needed recycling opportunity," said Mark Murray, executive director of Californians Against Waste, a nonprofit public interest group that supported the laws.

Civil penalties are severe, though the maximum isn't likely to be imposed. Cellphone users, stores owners or others who throw handsets into ordinary trash face fines of as much as $25,000 under a law effective in February. Retailers that don't have a recycling plan or don't comply with the law could be barred from selling handsets.

The laws, sponsored by Assemblywoman Fran Pavley (D-Agoura Hills), were passed in August 2004, but legislators heeded pleas of retailers for time to set up recycling plans. So the effective date for taking in cellphones was put off until today.

With more than 215 million cellphone users nationwide and new technology making current phones obsolete quickly, sales of handsets is a big business. Worldwide, analysts expect 1 billion handsets to be shipped this year. Most are to replace old phones.

But old handsets can gain new lives.

"If you're not using it anymore, that phone can provide value for somebody else," said Mike Newman, vice president of sales for ReCellular Inc., the nation's largest cellphone recycler. "There's no reason for it to sit in a closet and gather dust."

California now requires that Cingular Wireless, Verizon Wireless, Costco Wholesale Corp., Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and other retailers have a plan in place to recycle phones. Nearly all hire outside firms such as ReCellular to do the job.

ReCellular, with about 53% of the recycling market, takes in 15,000 cellphones a day at its plant in Dexter, Mich., near Ann Arbor, and Newman said the company was on track to grow 67% this year.

The company checks all the phones, fixing or cleaning up about 9,000 a day to ship back on the market. About half go to U.S. stores, where they are sold to customers who buy prepaid phone service. The rest go to 40 other countries, where a sales force gets the phones back into circulation.

Usually, recyclers take their costs and less than a third of the profit from the sales of used cellphones, and the carriers usually turn over the rest of the profit to charities of their choice.

"It's incredible what we get," Newman said. "When Verizon Wireless starting selling the Razr cellphone, we started to see them being recycled to us within a month after they entered the market. And they're working just fine."

The company also gets phones that are 15 to 20 years old. Some of those 5-pound phones still work great in wide-open areas such as Wyoming and Montana because their stronger transmitters and receivers can reach cellphone towers that are typically farther apart.

ReCellular tries to save at least one of every kind of cellphone for displays at conferences and trade shows, as well as for an exhibit it plans to open, Newman said.

One problem the company faces is trying to assure cellphone customers that they can remove their personal data from phones quite easily. Websites, including ReCellular's, give directions for just about every model made. Recyclers often do the job as well.

Phones that are too damaged or too out-of-date to work anywhere are sent to the recycling grinders, which remove traces of silver and gold as well as any hazardous materials on circuit boards, and grind the remaining plastic and metal for other uses.

"What's interesting is that because we track serial numbers, we're finding that there are phones we've received back as many as two more times," Newman said. "That means three people have used the same phone.

"But all the phones become junk eventually."

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