Mobile phone recycling: Turning intention into action

Ramon Llamas IDCEarlier this month, I was helping a friend of mine pack up his belongings to move to a new apartment. As it usually goes, packing ends up being a combination of "what to bring to the new place" and "what needs to be thrown out," and if the process is not done carefully, everything could fall into the former category and nothing into the latter. After convincing him that he could part with his old VHS and audio tapes (including, among others, a used copy of Steve Perry's solo album on tape), we went through his drawer of gadgets he didn't use any more: Walkmans, headphones, chargers and about a dozen mobile phones. Without thinking twice, he grabbed everything inside and dumped them into a trashcan.

            "What do you think you're doing?" I asked, a bit perturbed.

            "Throwing out what I don't use anymore," he responded, reaching for another old, unused phone.

            "You can recycle those," I told him.

            "You mean with the soda cans and newspaper?"

Good question. Recycling phones isn't anything like recycling soda cans or newspaper, and most, if not all, recycling centers are not equipped to handle some of the potentially hazardous material, nor strip out some of the valuable and re-usable materials within. But most users would not know this and even consider it once they've finished with a phone. In the end, I took his old phones to be recycled. I left the Steve Perry tape behind.

Consider the following

From the very beginning of the mobile phone market, we've all had our eyes on how many mobile phones would sell each year. With the exception of the economic downturn of 2009, that number has steadily climbed ever higher. But frequently overlooked in this analysis is what happens to old mobile phones once they have reached the end of their usage lives. Consider the following:

  • Every year since 2007, vendors have shipped more than one billion phones worldwide. In the United States alone, that number came to 180 million units last year. Even if just ten percent (currently considered a good benchmark) are recycled, there is still plenty left out there.
  • Earlier mobile phones contained one or several toxic materials, including PVC, phthalates, TBT, cadmium, beryllium, lead and chlorinated flame retardants, brominated compounds, antimony trioxide, arsenic. Most recycling centers are not equipped to handle them.
  • Within emerging markets, old phones are re-purposed among friends and family, thereby extending a phone's useful life. In mature markets, like the United States, constant upgrades have led to less usage of older phones.
  • According to an IDC survey taken in 2008, 35.3 percent of our respondents intended to recycle their mobile phone. But very few of those respondents knew how.
  • In that same survey, 20.8 percent of our respondents said that they would donate their phone to a charity. Again, few of those respondents knew how.
  • Finally, 5.5 percent of our respondents in that survey indicated that they would simply throw away their old phones.

Going just by these figures and trends alone, there is ample opportunity for the mobile phone market to bring mobile phone recycling to the forefront.

The first is to make recycling mobile phones part of the sales process. Carriers and retailers are in the perfect position to make mobile phone recycling a more accepted practice today. Moreover, since the United States mobile phone market has reached subscriber saturation, practically every person walking into a store should, theoretically, have a mobile phone that he or she will no longer be using. Rather than simply ending the selling process by ringing up the sale and showing how to use the phone, a carrier or retailer could collect the old phone to be recycled. And as an incentive to bring in old phones, a customer could be provided with a discount to be used towards another product or monthly service bill. At the same time, those customers who do not purchase a phone should still be able to drop off a phone at a carrier or retailer to be recycled.

The second is for vendors to make mobile phone recycling a goal for the public to see. At this year's Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, Samsung announced an ambitious goal to recycle one million mobile phones this year. Dubbed "March to a Million," the program aims to teach teens on the importance and ease of mobile phone recycling, with cash and other prizes available to schools that recycle the most phones. LG hosted its own ecoMobilization High School Cell Phone Recycling program this past spring, collecting thousands of phones in the course of 30 days. A similar competition is expected for this fall. Such programs as these bring the recycling movement out in front and build goodwill between the company and community.

Finally, carriers can tap into their subscriber bases to recycle their phones once they reach the end of a contract. As carriers are eager to provide a deep discount or even a free phone in exchange for renewing another two years, providing the means to recycle the old phone would not hurt either.

Recycling is just one piece of the puzzle

I did not touch upon many other facets of the green mobile phone effort, such as mobile phone design, manufacturing, packaging, and energy efficiency, among others. Each of those could take up their own column. Last month, IDC published a report examining what the leading handset vendors are doing in this space, and which ones excel in areas mentioned above. Much work has been done in each of these categories, and certainly many of the vendors have set examples for others to follow.

Like many of you, I've held on to many of my old phones, mostly due to nostalgia. Someday I will get around to giving them up for good. I don't plan on using any of them ever again as they lack many of the features and functionalities I've become accustomed to. Chances are I'll recycle it or give it a second life by passing it on to a friend of family member.

But you still won't find me picking up my friend's old Steve Perry tape.

Ramon Llamas is a senior research analyst with IDC's Mobile Devices Technology and Trends team. In his role, Llamas tracks the quarterly results of the leading and emerging mobile device vendors, and uses the data to forecast the short-term and long-term direction of the mobile device market, and how it affects handset vendors, carriers and customers. He recently released his worldwide mobile phone and smartphone 2010 - 2014 forecasts, as well as a worldwide forecast of the mobile phone touchscreen market. In addition to being featured in FierceWireless, Llamas has been featured on Bloomberg Radio, National Public Radio, and quoted in Investors Business Daily, the New York Times, and the Wall Street Journal. Llamas can be reached at [email protected].