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US: EcoATMs Swap E-waste for Cash

Enrique Gili

SAN DIEGO, California, Jan 11 2011 (IPS) - It’s hardly news that the U.S. love affair with electronic gadgets has a dark side. The global toll on natural resources and the potential health and environmental hazards are staggering.

A mobile e-waste recycling station. Credit: Courtesy of ecoATM

A mobile e-waste recycling station. Credit: Courtesy of ecoATM

In order to alleviate the mess, a San Diego-based start-up company called ecoATM has rolled out a self-service kiosk that enables shoppers to recycle unwanted electronic gear safely, offering cash rewards and coupons to people willing to part with unwanted cell phones and other electronic devices.

After a successful 12-month trial run in San Diego’s shopping centres and other test sites in the U.S., the eponymous ecoATM kiosks are poised to become as much a part of the retail landscape as coin-exchange machines did in the 1990s.

“It’s just the tip of the iceberg,” said Mark Bowles, the co-founder of ecoATM, speaking of the challenges and opportunities cell phones present to recyclers.

The kiosks work like an ATM in reverse. The machine scans and IDs the phones after they have been placed in a tray, looking for broken keys and cracked faces. After calculating the value of the phone, it makes the consumer an offer on the spot.

“People like the objectivity. There’s no haggling,” Bowles told IPS.

According to Bowles, the average household has five to six outmoded cell phones tucked away, worth an estimated 12.2 billion dollars in recyclable materials – meaning there’s a treasure trove of phones to be found scattered around the house. A newer iPhone might fetch three figures dollar-wise, whereas a disposable phone is barely worth the cost of recycling.

“People want do the right thing,” said Bowles. “We incentivise it.”

Seventy-five percent of the cell phones are destined for resellers who find a second life for them. The rest become industrial feedstock for the next generation of electronic devices.

ReCellular processes 400,000 used cell phones per month. Scores of smaller companies are refurbishing cell phones for reuse in U.S. markets and overseas.

“The value of these phones is shocking when you begin to think about it,” said Mark Newman, ReCellular’s marketing director.

The need to recycle is twofold. First, cell phones are resource-intensive. The raw materials are often extracted in places at a far remove from the rule of law, taking a heavy toll on political and biological hotspots. A single cell phone battery, for example, requires 3.2 tonnes of cobalt ore.

Recently published accounts on the Wikileaks website unveiled the more unsavory aspects of the mining trade, enumerating a long list of facilities that the State Department believed vital to U.S. economic and security interests. Among them was a cobalt mine in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Human rights activists contend that mining operations, both legal and illicit, have destabilised the DR Congo, as political factions engage in internecine turf wars for control over mineral-rich regions in central Africa. They say the wealth generated from rare metals and so-called blood diamonds is one of the primary drivers for the corruption and violence roiling the region.

According to a 2008 report by DanWatch, a corporate watchdog group based in Denmark, mobile phones accounted for 20 percent of cobalt consumption. DR Congo accounted for 40 percent of the world’s total cobalt production in 2008.

Secondly, in coming years, landfills in the U.S. can expect to receive a tidal wave of e-waste, as the number of obsolete cell phones grows and piles of PCs loom larger. Cell phones have an average lifespan of 18 months and that window seems to be shrinking, as the gap between a product’s novelty and obsolescence shorten.

There are an estimated 130 to 150 million cell phones retired each year, generating 64,000 tonnes of recyclable materials.

Regulation is scant. Twenty-four U.S. states have outlawed the improper disposal of e-waste in landfills, leaving a patchwork of inconsistent guidelines and regulations in the remaining states. According to survey data, less than one percent of cell phones are recycled.

“Whatever the percentages are, they’re way too low,” said Newman.

Although discarded cell phones represent a small percentage of the overall volume of e-waste in landfills, they can pose an environmental and health hazard due to the presence of high levels lead, cadmium, copper, and other hazardous materials. These metals comprise the guts of cell phones, and when tossed into landfills, they can leach into the soil as the phones deteriorate.

Worldwide, the U.N. reports e-waste is expected to grow exponentially in developing countries as the use of PCs and cell phones continues to rise. According to the report, China discarded 2.3 million tonnes of e-waste each year, second only to the United States in 2010.

In China, cell phone e-waste is expected to increase seven- fold from 2007 levels by 2020, and 18-fold in India.

Heidi Sanborn, executive director of the California Product Stewardship Council, is adamant about the lack of leadership cell phone companies have demonstrated thus far.

“They’ve privatised the benefit and socialised the costs,” she told IPS.

This leaves the market wide open for green entrepreneurs – and shady operators working in the murky recesses of the global economy.

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