E-Cycling: Where Cell Phones Go to Die What happens to your cell phone after it hits the recycling bin? New technologies for harvesting the precious metals inside are changing the fate of so-called e-waste.
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E-Cycling: Where Cell Phones Go to Die

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E-Cycling: Where Cell Phones Go to Die

E-Cycling: Where Cell Phones Go to Die

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Did you know there's about a dollar's worth of precious metals in your cell phone? Or that there's enough gold in 200 cell phones to make a gold ring? Or that one ton of cell phones yields about three and a half kilograms of silver? So, now, think back to that last cell phone or BlackBerry you had, the one that's sitting in your drawer at home. Or did you send it back to manufacturer through a tack back or a recycling program. If you did send it back, have you thought about what might have happened to it afterwards?

Here to answer some of those questions is Seth Heine. He's one of the growing number of people getting in on the electronic recycling game. He's founder of the cell phone recycling company, Collective Good. Hey, Seth.

Mr. SETH HEINE (Founder, Collective Good): Hey, good morning. How are you today?

STEWART: I'm doing great. So, I indeed have one of these cell phones sitting at home, in a drawer, in my home office. What should I do with it?

Mr. HEINE: Well, of course, you should recycle it. There are - you probably have more than one phone. And if you only have one phone, you'd be in the minority. Most people have about three phones or more per adult in the United States, and the cumulative backlog of those phones is about one billion phones sitting in our drawers in the United States. Hundreds of millions of them have already made into the land fills, and the phones behave like toxic waste in the landfills. They will leak lead off the circuit boards and have a variety of other toxic heavy metals in them that can contaminate the environment and the ground waters.

STEWART: Okay, so that stinks.

Mr. HEINE: So, yeah. But there's a very easy and graceful solution. Phones are very easy to recycle. Almost everybody runs free recycling programs, whether it's the manufacturers or the carriers. Our company, Collective Good, has been around eight years now. We're largely a Web-driven company at CollectiveGood.com. We work with hundreds of charities around the country, about 500 at last count. And we're in every Staples office supply store in the United States and every FedEx Kinko's in the United States. So those are also some easy, physical drop off places where people can go and drop off their phones and be assured that they'll be recycled responsibly.

STEWART: There's a lot that can - ways that cell phones can be recycled. Literally, they can go into what's called secondary markets. Will you explain that to me?

Mr. HEINE: Sure. Secondary markets, basically, is a reuse market. And what that implies is that those phones are going to be collected. They're going to be sorted. Sometimes they're tested, sometimes they're not. And ultimately, they will go back into use in secondary markets or developing world markets. In almost every country outside of the United States and particularly in the developing world, they never really built a land line infrastructure. So when mobile phones came along, the people throughout the developing world basically leap frogged the entire notion of telephone poles and phones bolted to walls and went straight to mobile. And what that caused was a seismic shift of people who had never owned a phone before in their lives, and they literally went strait to mobile. So these phones go back into use into those markets because the people in the developing world don't have the cash to buy new mobile phones, which are still very expensive. But they can easily afford second-hand, refurbished phones. And that's the market for them.

STEWART: So that's one way to recycle a phone, physically to give it to someone else who needs it and can put it to good use. Now there's this other option of melting them down, sending them to a smelter.

Mr. HEINE: Correct. As part of our process, all the phones come in. They're inspected, and through some various processes to determine if it's a good phone, if it works, if it's got water damage, et cetera. But a full 37 percent of the phones that we collect are ultimately slated for materials reclamation, which is a nice way of saying that that phone is going to be taken out of the market. It's going to be ground up. It's going to be shipped to company - actually, the company that we use is over in Antwerp, Belgium.

And those phones will literally be melted down and run through a materials reclamation process. So the gold, the copper, the platinum, the silver, the palladium, all of those metals are captured and made available for reuse, whether that goes back - the reuse is jewelry or another gadget in the form of a circuit, nobody really knows the answer to that. The answer is all of the above. So we're looking at the math of what happens when you recycle those through our process, and the answer that it mitigates the creation of an additional three-and-a-half tons of toxic mining waste, just through the simple act of recycling a phone that easily fits in your pocket.

STEWART: So I understand why somebody would want to melt down the phones and get the precious metals out of them and the various metals that can used - we use in other electronics. But I know - I bet a lot of people sort of think, like, well, if I give my phone to someone to use in another market, what about all my information on there? I know they tell me they can wipe out, but can you really, really remove all the personal data off of a cell phone?

Mr. HEINE: Absolutely. Absolutely. Like I said, 37 percent of the phones go straight through a grind a melt process, and molten phones tell no secrets. But when these phone go back into reuse in the developing world, they're almost always reflashed as a matter of course. And what that really means is that whoever is going to be reusing those phones - see, we sell phones on an industrial level. They are bought by industrial level buyers, and they're going to change out the software on that phone. And when they do, they software is going to overwrite anything that was in the phone. So all of the personal data, the contact, the photos, the chat threads, all of that stuff is ultimately overwritten and a vaporized, essentially, during that process.

STEWART: Was your metal reclamation - are there jewelry companies actually buying this gold and silver?

Mr. HEINE: You know, there are some jewelry companies that buy recycled metals. I don't know that there are any jewelry manufacturers buying them through our process, although we have actually engaged with jewelry manufacturers and retailers of jewelry in the United States that we have an amazing source of green gold, as it's called, that reclaims sustainably harvested gold.

STEWART: You've laid out several great scenarios for recycling cell phones an BlackBerrys and Treos and all the like. Why don't people do it? Why do people have them sitting at home?

Mr. HEINE: You know, it's an interesting question. We ask ourselves that all the time, trying to figure how it you engage and motivate people. I think the fact is is that, number one, they're still sort of simply stated, an awareness fact, where people aren't really aware that these phones can be recycled. I think, oddly, there's a psychological barrier there that people become attached to their old phone, and, you know load it with your memories. You've got your chat threads. You've got your contacts in there. You may have photos, et cetera, in there - maybe even movies, these days. And people are just sort of reluctant to part with that. And there's an emotional connection. We've actually developed a new Web site called GreenPhone, GreenPhone.com.

And the idea is that some people are simply caught up in the notion that they spent a lot of money on that phone, and even though they've just gone out and spent maybe even more money on a new phone, the old phone works perfectly fine, and so they're just not willing to give it away. And so the notion of a green phone is that if you tell us the make and model of phone you have, we'll tell you what it's worth. Basically, we're buying people's phones back through the Web. And for every phone we buy, we plant a tree. The underlying concept is to give people one more form of motivation, that if they're not going to recycle their phone out of common sense or altruism, then we'll just get straight to the core of it and pay people to do the right thing and protect the environment.

STEWART: We'll just get it to be back to the green in more ways than one. Seth Heine of Collective Good, thanks for being with us.

Mr. HEINE: Thank you very much, and have a great day.

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