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Don’t throw that old mobile away

Aging wireless devices should be recycled, not trashed. It has become obvious that more should be done.

January 1, 2004  

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Happy New Year, everyone. Did you start the year with a new mobile device? Many of us did, I bet.

Take for instance the hapless commuter in New York City who last Halloween dropped his mobile phone in the toilet during rush-hour on a commuter train.

He went fishing for it, got his arm stuck in the bowl, and brought the system to a halt while firefighters applied the Jaws Of Life to break him free. Chances are he got a new phone in his stocking — hopefully, one with a wrist-strap.

I first heard this story while speaking to Michael Powers, vice president of marketing at Asurion ( This company offers services to large corporations, including mobile equipment leasing and insurance plans.

Asurion’s tracking shows that over a three-year period, half of all wireless devices are lost, stolen, stepped on, driven over, dropped, flushed or otherwise rendered useless. Meantime, most users peg the life cycle of their mobiles at 12-24 months.

Not for landfill

I got thinking about this after having problems with an inkjet printer. Three days after the one-year manufacturer’s warranty expired it spit out a gear. My local computer store directed me to the manufacturer, who said, “sorry, it’s not worth our time to repair these: buy a new one.”

That’s understandable – ink-jet printers are dirt-cheap these days, but I was livid when told the company could not help me responsibly dispose of my dead printer.

Electronics are full of environmental and health hazards including gold, arsenic, chromium, lead, nickel, silver and zinc. These should be recovered and reused, or disposed of properly – not sent to landfill.

Industry action

Getting back to mobile devices, that one- to two-year life cycle is worrisome. With some 13 million Canadian wireless users, that’s a lot of devices that have outlived their usefulness.

The good news is that the mobile industry is doing something about recycling.

Globally, major device manufacturers agreed at the end of 2002 to make their products easier to recycle.

In Canada, most if not all carriers will take back end-of-life devices at their retail stores (and Asurion recycles devices from its corporate accounts as part of its leasing program).

One of the most visible programs is called “Recycle, Reuse and Redial”. Under this program, Bell Mobility recovers end-of-life devices from any carrier through its Bell World stores.

The company donates some reusable handsets to Canadian charities and non-profit organizations such as women’s shelters and community patrols. Others are refurbished and sold in countries where people generally can’t afford brand-new mobile devices.

Handsets that can’t be reused are sent for materials recovery and proper disposal.

Information scarce

These are all good things, and the Canadian industry should be applauded for its efforts. But more could be done.

For one thing, I had to really dig on the Internet to find any information about recycling a handset.

I was researching for this column, but most wireless users would have given up long before I did.

Yet it would be in the industry’s best interest to promote recycling and responsible disposal.

Voluntary action is always preferable to responding to legislation — and legislation governing electronics waste has been introduced elsewhere in the world.

Ultimately, however, it is the customer who is responsible for what happens to an end-of-life mobile device. Those who oversee company budgets for wireless equipment (and other electronics) should ask their vendors and the device manufacturers about options for recycling end-of-life devices and factor that into their purchasing decisions.

As our hapless commuter would attest, flushing an old phone is not an option.

Trevor Marshall is a Toronto-based reporter, writer and observer of the Canadian wireless industry. He can be reached at 416-878-7730 or

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