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iPhone 4: Way Cool, but Is Anyone Recycling Their Old Ones?

5 years ago
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This has been quite a week for novelty and inspiration. Alongside the USA's dramatic victory over Algeria in the World Cup and the longest tennis match in history, Apple also rolled out the latest incarnation of its incredibly popular iPhone.

In Japan, where the launch for the iPhone 4 began on Thursday morning, Apple's exclusive wireless carrier had sold out by early afternoon. In the United States, more than 600,000 pre-orders for the new phone crashed the system on Wednesday. One eager soul in Dallas camped out at an Apple store a full week before the launch. Some in the telecommunications industry are expecting that Apple will sell 9.5 million of them by the end of June. (Compare that with the first iPhone release in 2007, when it took about 2½ months to sell 1 million.)

In my own neighborhood here in London, there was already a queue around the block by the time the Vodaphone Store opened at 10 a.m. Men and women in suits tapped out texts on their soon-to-be-outdated iPhone 3G's. Mums sipping Starbucks tried to keep restless toddlers in their strollers. In short: Dozens of people delayed the start of this stunningly beautiful June day by several hours, all so that they could be the first to get their hands on this latest i-toy.

Let me say up front that I've got nothing against iPhones. I inherited one Wednesday night from a friend who's moving back to the States. He swears by it ("It knows what I want before I do"), as do scores of other friends, some of whom have confessed that they actually sleep with their smart phones. And while I'm not as much of a gadget freak as my husband, even I was blown way by the app that let Scottish National Party activists target sympathetic voters in the run-up to the general elections in May. (Yeah, I'm kinda geeky.)

So yes, it's cool. Way cool, perhaps (notwithstanding that little reception problem some are grousing about). But there's still something really disturbing about all those people lining up to purchase what is essentially a tweak on a device that's only three years old and seems to work pretty darn well already. (And yes, I do know about the new video-conferencing feature.) As my late father used to exclaim when exhorting us kids to finish our dinner: "For God's sake! There are children starving in India!"

This in-your-face display of conspicuous consumption got me wondering: What do all these well-off people do with their old (I use this term advisedly) iPhones?

So I did some research. And the answer turns out to be "not very much."

According to Treehugger -- a media outlet dedicated to sustainability -- Americans buy around 140 million cellphones a year, replacing old ones an average of every 18 months. But only about 1 percent of the world's 4 billion cellphones are recycled (with around 10 percent of U.S. consumers recycling handsets). In 2009, an estimated 148 million cellphones became obsolete and were discarded in the U.S., and over 700 million others were stockpiled in American homes. If you're having trouble visualizing all of this, click on this photo of what 426,000 discarded cellphones looks like (the amount Americans toss per day). It is estimated that, worldwide, nearly 85 million mobile phones are sitting unused, taking up space in desk drawers.

All this, despite the fact that there are now numerous companies, including Apple, that promote and encourage recycling of old and used phones.

The anemic nature of cellphone recycling has both environmental and ethical dimensions. As for the former, these phones contain toxic chemicals that poison the environment. One American company, ReCellular -- which specializes in recycling cellphones -- announced that it diverted 1.6 million pounds of solid waste (including over 600,000 pounds of hazardous materials) from landfills in 2009 alone. According to a recent report by Pike Research, e-waste is expected to skyrocket over the next decade worldwide, especially in countries like China and India, which will experience 400 percent and 500 percent increase respectively. Mobile phones will play a significant component in that trend, rising seven times higher in China and 18 times higher in India.

And there are those ethical concerns too. Watching the many World Cup games that pit poor countries against rich gets me thinking about global inequality. There's a massive demand for cellphones in developing countries, particularly in Africa, where the desire for them is extremely high and the cost of a recycled phone is less than half that of a new one. If Africa is to take advantage of its recent signs of growth, it is essential that its workforce have state-of-the art, affordable technology.

So call me a Marxist. But rather than throwing all of our energy into rooting for Team USA to defeat Ghana in the World Cup match on Saturday, more Americans might want to also mail the Ghanaians their perfectly good iPhone 3Gs.

Just a thought.

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What counts as recycling? We recycle in my family; I'm driving my mother's 1999 Buick, and using her 4 yr old blackberry. I'm waiting anxiously for her to buy a new cell, so I can have her 3G iPhone... because the blackberry is dinged up and has 2 non-functioning keys. She taught us to keep using things as long as possible, until it's impossible to keep going. I stitch up holes in my clothes-doesn't seem like any kids know how to do that- and when my sister got pregnant last year, she cleaned out my closet. (Since she's nearly 6 inches shorter than I.) Oh, and the old phone I had before I got the blackberry? I paid for a "tuneup" and donated it to the cell phones for soldiers program. And anyone else should donate their old phones to that and other worthy charities before sending them off to Ghana.

June 27 2010 at 1:42 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I heard from an iPhone user that some chains (Best Buy, Walmart) take the older model as a trade in towards purchase of a new one. He said as a result, he can afford new ones for both himself and his wife. He understands the older models will be resold.

June 26 2010 at 9:47 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Targeting Americans typical. We aren't the only ones who do these things. You did say there are 4 billion phones in the world and only 1 percent are recycled. That means there is a hell of a lot of you guys wasting phones too. So next time instead of targeting one country go for the statistics that involve the world, because im sure you could all give some cell phones to the Ghanaians as well. Just a thought.

June 26 2010 at 7:30 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

iPhones, unless broken, normally do not get tossed or recycled. They either get sold or given to others or simply used as an iTouch (touch screen iPod for the unititiated). Yes, there is a problem of recycling cell phones but the phone companies could do a lot to help by offering rebates or some sort of incentive for turning in old cell phones when you get a new one.

June 26 2010 at 4:25 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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This must be the reason that there is not ONE comment listed.

Concerning the iPhone, once I get the iPhone 4 I will be recycling the iPhone 3Gs to my daughter.

June 26 2010 at 12:53 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

Why send them overseas? I'm sure their are plenty of people that could use them here. We are not all fortunate enough to afford one just cause we live in the US.

June 26 2010 at 12:40 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply

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