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Old cell phones ring again

OTTAWA — First, she had a silver Samsung flip phone. But the display screen froze.


chelsea sutcliffe talks on her Sony Walkman cell phone
Chelsea Sutcliffe talks on her sixth cell phone.

She got a black Fido model next, but the battery couldn't hold its charge.

Her next phone got stolen. Another had been "dropped and kicked and thrown," she says.

Chelsea Sutcliffe has gone through six different cell phones in the past four years.

The 21-year-old resident of Dunnville, Ont., says she doesn't know how she's gone through so many, but is pleased her current Sony Ericsson Walkman is still dialling strong.

Sutcliffe is not alone in consuming so many cell phones. North Americans buy a new phone every 18 months on average - either to replace a broken one or to get the newest model, according to Recellular Inc., a Michigan-based company that refurbishes and recycles phones from Canada and the United States.

This appetite is heaping more and more cell phones onto landfills, next to computers, stereos, TVs and other small appliances. These products all contribute to the greater problem of electronic waste.

Environment Canada estimates 140,000 tonnes of e-waste end up in its landfills each year. The federal and provincial governments are toiling to combat e-waste through new programs geared towards cell phones.

Five provinces to date - British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Ontario and Nova Scotia - support Extended Producer Responsibility programs, in which manufacturers, not the government or consumers, are responsible to recycle their products.

Calling all e-waste

The federal government launched the free Recycle My Cell website out of Nova Scotia earlier this year, at It allows people to put in their postal code and find the nearest place, out of 3,500 cross-country locations, to drop off their cell phones for recycling. It collects any model in any condition, as well as chargers and batteries.

While Recycle My Cell operates nationally now, it originally started on a smaller scale four years ago. Since then, the number of phones it gathers has increased annually by about 30 per cent, says Hayley MacPhee, spokesperson for the Canadian Wireless Telecommunications Association, which operates the program.

SLIDESHOW: Cellular autopsy

What a cell phone looks like when you take it apart.
Requires FlashPlayer

MacPhee estimates the number of phones collected will reach about 200,000 this year, thanks to the provinces' efforts to mandate cell-phone recycling.

Once, Sutcliffe took one phone back to the store because it wasn't working right. The employee sold her a new phone and kept the old one.

"They said, 'We'll take it.' I don't know what they did with it," she says.

Cell phone companies can take back used or damaged cell phones. Rogers Wireless has donated the proceeds from the phones' refurbishing or recycling to charity since 2004.

Both Rogers and Recycle My Cell send the phones they collect to Recellular Inc.

"Reuse is the highest form of recycling. We try to reuse as many phones as possible," says Brandi Farwig, Recellular's environmental specialist, as she explains a cell phone's trek through the recycling process. The company collected more than 250,000 phones from its Canadian partners last year.

Working phones are refurbished and resold.

Phones with no life left head to the shredder.

I just called to say recycle

This giant machine uses gravity and magnets to sort the phones into different materials - such as plastics, aluminium, copper and gold, says Scott Hurren, commercial manager for Sims Recycling Solutions. The Brampton, Ont., company recycles phones whose metals are resold in Canada.

The next stop is a smelter in Quebec, operated by mining company Xstrata Copper Canada. The smelter uses heat and chemicals to refine the commodity metals into their purest forms.

The commodities are then sold to the highest bidders around the world, says Paul Healey, recycling manager at Xstrata Copper. They're used for applications like electricity and plumbing, or whatever the buyer wants.

"There is no reason why any phone should go in a landfill," says Mike Newman, Recellular vice-president. Although not the biggest electronics on the garbage heap, he says, they become a problem when you add them all up.

Sutcliffe says as far as she knows, none of her phones have been scrapped. She has either passed them on to others, or returned them so the store employees can send them for recycling.

She's had her current Sony Ericsson Walkman, her sixth phone, for a month now. "I just hope this one lasts," she says.

Front page photo courtesy of Recellular Inc.

Related Links

Recellular Inc.'s online tool to erase cell phone data

Watch how phones get recycled at the Recellular plant

Learn more about Canada's national and provincial EPR programs



Erasing your phone's data

Recellular Inc. offers a free online tool customers can use to erase all their personal data from their phones before anyone fixes or recycles it.

Recellular staff do the same when they determine whether to refurbish the device or not.

"They run the functional phones through a data destruction process built specifically for every phone model. We have run millions of phones through this process without one instance of a data leak."

Source: Mike Newman,
Recellular Inc. vice-president


Nature calls

The W233 Renew model is green
Motorola says this phone is made entirely from plastic water bottles.

Motorola released its W233 Renew model last month.

The company says it's the world's first carbon-neutral cell phone.

Motorola earned CarbonFree certification through

This means it has invested in renewable energy sources to offset the carbon dioxide needed to manufacture, distribute and operate the phone.

T-Mobile's suggested retail price for the W233 Renew is $59.99 US.

Source: Motorola Inc. and T-Mobile USA


Recycling safely
around the world

The Canadian government also supports the international Basel Convention.

This agreement states that countries must make sure they safely discard e-waste in appropriate places, and not ship it out to dump in foreign countries for a profit.

So far, 172 countries have signed and ratified it.

Afghanistan, the United States and Haiti have signed it, but not yet ratified the convention.

Source: The Basel Convention


© Carleton University School of Journalism and Communication