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    The Other Side of the Cell Phone Revolution

    By Keith R | September 4, 2006

    Topics: Electronic/Electrical Equipment, Environmental Protection, Waste & Recycling | 1 Comment »

    1 Star2 Stars3 Stars4 Stars5 Stars (1 votes, average: 4.00 out of 5)

    Not Our Problem? Do You Know What Lurks in Your Cell Phone?

    A few years ago I was chatting with someone who is involved with the process of formulating a national policy on the management of solid wastes in Brazil. We had gotten to the question of which, if any, end-of-life (EOL) products should be declared to be “special wastes” and therefore subject to separate, special collection, handling, treatment, recycling and disposal schemes. I asked if there was any intent to include some electronics as special waste.

    He laughed and said something to the effect that that was a First World worry, not yet a problem in Brazil.

    I arched an eyebrow skeptically. “Leaving aside for the moment all the computers and consumer electronics I see in this country with old lead glass monitor screens, units containing brominated flame retardants (BFRs), circuit boards with lead solder, power supplies with Ni-Cd and mercury button batteries, etc.,” I responded, “What about all those cell phones I see on the belt of nearly every Brazilian I see on the street? What happens when all those hit the waste stream? Or are you going to wait until they all become a problem too big to ignore, rather than start planning proactively?”

    He replied that he had not intended to suggest that it was not an issue worthy of concern and thought, but rather that no one in Brazil would get truly worried about it until it “reached critical mass” and could no longer be ignored. “That, unfortunately, is how things usually go here.”

    Time to Start Worrying?

    Perhaps Brazil and many other Latin American and Caribbean (LAC) nations should reconsider the issue.

    A study released on 21 August by the consumer trends consulting firm LatinPanel estimates that 70% of all Latin Americans use cell phones, based on their survey of electronics ownership and use trends in 15 Latin American nations. The highest percentage found was Colombia at 90%, followed by Venezuela (89%), Chile (87% – just two years ago it was half that!) and Bolivia (82%). [I notice that Latinpanel does not discuss percentages in the Dominican Republic, where I know cell phones are ubiquitous!] Of the countries surveyed, Honduras had the lowest penetration, 49%. Costa Rica had 51%, Argentina 63%. In Brazil the penetration of the market is closer to 50%, but that still represents 93 million phones!

    Why such huge numbers? Well, there is of course the growing popularity of cells worldwide, especially now that they come laden with special gadgets like games, instant messaging, text messaging, photo cameras, miniature video displays and video cameras, etc.

    But in LAC nations, the issue is often more pragmatic: in many countries, it can take forever and much bureaucracy and many headaches to get your land-line connected, but a cell phone can be activated the same day.

    And then in some nations there is the price issue. A recent Argentine study showed that it was cheaper for many small businesses there to use a cell phone rather than a land-line.

    I can already hear some of you saying, yeah, but in LAC nations people stick with their old phone longer or hand it down to a relative or friend, so it spends longer away from the waste stream. Well, that used to be true. Recent studies (including some by Latinpanel and AC Nielsen) suggest the percentage of secondhand use of cell phones is dropping dramatically, while first-time purchase and uses is rising fast. Why? To keep up with the “latest-and-greatest” of course! [Me, I only indulge myself with text messaging and IM. No photos, videos, games or other special whistles and bells!]

    And the longer product life and greater secondhand use in LAC nations does have its downside. Some of those phones use older, less environment-friendly batteries, such as Ni-Cds, which have all but disappeared from North American, Japanese and European cell phones in favor of the longer-lasting (and not plagued with “battery memory syndrome”) lithium-ion batteries. Furthermore, if you’re toting an older cell, you more than likely have one with PVC, BFR and heavy metal content.

    Why does this matter? Well, in most, if not all, LAC nations, EOL cell phones (or any phone set, for that matter) go straight to ordinary “waste disposal facilities.” Note the quotation marks! In all too much of LAC, household wastes — or for that matter, all wastes — go into what can only be called dumps. Many of these are open-air dumps. Many contaminate nearby bodies of water.

    The amount of pollution one poorly disposed cell phone battery or hand unit can cause may be minute, but 93 million sets and counting? Mull that over for a minute or two.

    What’s Being Done About It?

    At the moment, not enough. A few of the multinational manufacturers and some of the cell phone service providers operate modest voluntary bring-back programs for cell phone batteries in countries such as Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay. A smaller number will take back your used phone unit as well. But these programs are few and far between, generally cannot be found outside major metropoles such as Buenos Aires, Rio de Janeiro or São Paulo, and as I outlined in my prior blog piece on Greenpeace’s electronics report, the average LAC consumer often has difficulty in getting useful information about the programs.

    There are also a handful of recycling firms or consortia that will take your EOL phone. In Chile, for example, Recycla will take them, sending the batteries to a local hazardous waste management company and sending the most of the rest off to Europe.

    As for governments, well several of them — notably Argentina, Brazil, Chile and Colombia — have been “studying” the e-waste issue for years, and promise action “soon.” Most have focused on the broader electronics and electrical equipment (EEE) sector, but some have paid particular attention to cell phones because their market penetration has been far greater and much faster than that of computers and many of higher-tech consumer electronics.

    Legislative proposals on e-scrap (lixo tecnológico as the Brazilians like to call it) by individual members of Congress cropped up in Brazil as early as 1998, and are now appearing in Argentina and Mexico.

    At the federal level Brazil has had in place since 1999 mandatory rules on take-back of certain batteries (those containing specified levels of cadmium, lead or mercury) in the form of CONAMA Resolution 257, but it has been poorly implemented and enforced and is now being revised.

    There are a host of Brazil state and municipal laws on EOL batteries (many specifically targeted at cell phones) and a few Brazilian state laws already on the books that call for special regimes for scrap electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE), but none of these has been fully implemented and enforced (yet).

    Tackling the WEEE issue in general, or the EOL cell phone issue in particular, within the LAC context will not be easy nor swift. One cannot lift wholesale the language of the European Union’s (EU) WEEE and RoHS Directives (some of the LAC proposals of recent years have been precisely that), or California’s e-scrap law, and hope to have it work in any meaningful fashion in LAC nations. But simply because it is tough and thorny does not mean it should be ignored or continue to be put off.

    — Keith R

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    One Response to “The Other Side of the Cell Phone Revolution”

    1. trade in mobile Says:

      I agree. The same situation will also happen in India. Right now no one cares for all the e-waste being generated by cell phones and other electronics and electrical equipments. A survey shows,in India around 80% own mobile phones.If we think of all those going to waste streams, only god can save from the pollution.
      I think the government needs to act and regulate mobile phone recycling

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