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ENVIRONMENT: Cell Phones Getting Greener

Stephen Leahy* - Tierramérica

TORONTO, Jan 13 2007 (IPS) - Cellular telephones that contain toxic chemicals are still being sold in Latin America and other developing regions. But thanks to strict European regulations, there are progressively fewer phones being made with cadmium, lead and other dangerous materials.

The new, stricter standards adopted by the European Union in 2006, forced the world’s five leading cell phone manufacturers to eliminate toxic metals and other materials from their products.

In a year or two, the majority of the more than one billion new mobiles sold annually will meet the EU standards even if most countries don’t have those restrictions, says Zeina Alhajj, a toxics expert with the environmental watchdog Greenpeace International.

“The mobile phone is a global product with screws made in China, silicon chips made in Malaysia, and cables made in the Philippines,” Alhajj told Tierramérica from Amsterdam.

It would be too complicated to manufacture phones to meet different standards, so the big companies are making all their phones meet European regulations, which are the toughest in the world, she added.

Five companies – Nokia, Motorola, Samsung, LG, and Sony Ericsson – manufactured more than 80 percent of the one billion phones sold in 2006, according to IDC Consulting’s Worldwide Mobile Phone Tracker. Nokia and Motorola are the leaders in Latin America.

A mobile phone can contain 500 to 1,000 components. Many of these contain toxic heavy metals such as lead, mercury, cadmium and beryllium, and hazardous chemicals, such as brominated flame retardants (BFR).

Polluting PVC plastic is also frequently used to make the case and keypad and the batteries contain cadmium, nickel and lithium.

The EU’s Restriction of Hazardous Substances (RoHS) directive entered into force at mid-year, banning the use of a number of hazardous substances like lead, mercury and BFR in electrical and electronic equipment.

“As a result of RoHS, a number of mobiles can no longer be sold in the EU,” said Alhajj. “Those phones are going to be sold in China, the USA and Latin America.”

Using non-RoHS compliant phones is not a health concern, but if they end up in garbage dumps or are just thrown away, toxic substances could seep into the soil and groundwater. And while mobile phones are small, an estimated five billion have been produced and most are no longer in use.

“Much of the electronic waste in Latin America ends up in open air dumps,” says Keith Ripley, an environmental regulations expert at Temas Actuales, a Latin American and Caribbean public affairs consultancy.

Batteries are a particular problem, Ripley told Tierramérica. “Knock-off or black market batteries are an even bigger problem” because they look like they were made by the original manufacturer and sell for half the price, but they contain very high levels of mercury. This heavy metal can cause brain damage and birth defects.

Most companies in Latin America have battery recycling programs, but few people know about them, nor are they well advertised, he said.

Motorola de Mexico announced in November that it will take back both used cellular phones and batteries from its customers, at no cost, at 31 locations throughout the country. They will be sent to a recycling company to recover the valuable components and metals, Mario Ocampo, a company representative, said in a statement.

In the EU, all mobile phone companies are obligated to set up take-back and recycle programs for batteries and phones under the bloc’s Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment directive that entered into force in 2005.

However, re-use should come first, before recycling, says Ripley, noting that Brazil’s Vivo mobile telecommunications service provider, the largest in the southern hemisphere, is setting up 4,000 used cell phone collection locations.

Potentially, tens of millions of old phones will be collected and sent to a company in the U.S. state of Michigan called ReCellular Inc., which sorts, erases all data contained in the phones’ electronic chips, cleans, tests and re-sells them.

“Up to 70 percent of the phones we collect can be re-sold. We have similar programs in Venezuela and Ecuador,” Mike Newman, vice-president of ReCellular, said in a Tierramérica interview.

The firm collects nearly four million used phones each year from around the world, re-selling most for about 15 dollars and recycling the rest. It pays companies like Vivo for each phone collected but those funds usually go to local charities.

“Governments and environmentalists are paying closer attention to E-waste issues, and companies like Vivo are getting out in front on this,” he said. Used cell phones are sold in approximately 30 countries.

About two billion people are currently cell phone users, but since 80 percent of world’s population has access to mobile networks and many cannot afford new phones, there is a huge market for used phones, Newman said.

But most people don’t know what to do with their old phones, so they hang on to them or throw them in the garbage.

“Our biggest challenge is public education and motivating people to drop their old phones off in the collection boxes. Keeping as many cell phones as possible from reaching landfills or polluting the environment is the main objective for these programs,” Newman said. ReCellular’s website also coordinates mailing in the phones for recycling.

The best way to avoid the waste issue is to keep phones until they no longer work. But phone manufacturers continue to hard-sell new phones with new features, so the average person keeps their phone for only 18 months, said Greenpeace’s Alhajj.

And that “lifespan” is getting shorter with each passing year, making heavy demands on natural resources, she said. “The next huge challenge is to stop the hard-sell marketing and get the companies to make products that are both green and upgradable.”

(*Stephen Leahy is an IPS correspondent. Originally published by Latin American newspapers that are part of the Tierramérica network. Tierramérica is a specialised news service produced by IPS with the backing of the United Nations Development Programme and the United Nations Environment Programme.)

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