Cell phone collection efforts are barely making a dent, recovering less than 1 percent of discarded phones, and an unintended side effect of a new federal rule may worsen the problem.
A report by New York-based national environmental research group Inform Inc. estimates Americans will retire 100 million cell phones this year, some 50,000 tons of waste.
But the four leading U.S. cell phone collection programs have recovered less than 1 percent of the phones retired since 1999, according to the report, ``Calling All Cell Phones: Collection Reuse and Recycling Programs in the U.S.''
From 1999-2003, programs have collected about 2.5 million phones.
Disposing of hundreds of millions of phones in landfills or incinerators will release toxic materials such as arsenic, lead and cadmium, said Eric Most, the report's author.
``Existing U.S. collection programs are making steps in the right direction, but they're operating at a scale and scope that is dwarfed by the monumental size of the problem,'' Most said.
Exasperating the situation, a new Federal Communications Commission rule may lead to even more discarded cell phones. The FCC's local number portability rule allows consumers to switch wireless providers or move from local telephone service to a wireless carrier while retaining their existing telephone numbers.
The rule took effect in the nation's 100 largest markets Nov. 24. The FCC will implement the rule for the rest of the country May 24.
But the rule, meant to simplify consumers' moves between providers, could have a nasty side effect, said Mark Murray, executive director of Californians Against Waste in Sacramento. Some 30 million consumers are expected to switch carriers in the first year alone, upping the number of retired cell phones because subscribers must purchase a new phone every time they switch, he said.
``The cell phone has become the latest disposable accessory,'' Murray said. ``But unlike the burger box or plastic cup, cell phones contain a slew of toxic materials.''
But consumers' exodus from their current providers may have been exaggerated, said Travis Larson, a spokesman for the Cellular Telecommunications & Internet Association, which represents all elements of wireless communication.
Industry analysts expected 1 million to 9 million people to switch to new carriers during the first week of the new program. But only about 80,000 switched the first day, Larson said.
``This expected flood has turned out to be a trickle,'' he said.
Inform's study does offer recommendations for collection program operators that could increase their effectiveness. Operators need to offer convenient, permanent drop-off sites in high-traffic locations such as shopping malls, supermarkets and post offices.
Permanent collection systems must replace temporary drives and operators must publicize them aggressively to make a real difference in recovery rates, according to the report.
However, all major carriers do take back their own phones and accessories as well as those of their competitors, Larson said. His association launched a consumer education campaign in October to increase recycling across the industry.
The report also recommends that manufacturers simplify software to expedite refurbishing and design standardized components, such as batteries, to allow interchangeability among different phone models. Reducing toxic materials in cell phones also would make them more recyclable and reduce contamination issues.
Government entities need to push manufacturers to make design changes. Banning cell phones from landfills and incinerators also would increase the recycling rate while mandatory public reporting on the collection and end use of refurbished phones would allow public officials to track the effectiveness of collection programs, the report said.
Governments also can set targets for collection, reuse and recycling to give the wireless phone industry incentives to design for reuse and recycling.
``U.S. cell phone programs and manufacturers can be competitive, responsible actors in the global marketplace if they adopt this report's recommendations,'' said Joanna Underwood, president of Inform. ``For the environment and the economy, why not be proactive?''
Inform's report focused on four of the nation's leading cell phone collection programs - the Wireless Foundation's Donate-a-Phone program, Verizon Communication Inc.'s HopeLine program, CollectiveGood International and the Charitable Recycling Program.
The programs have donated $6.5 million from the sale of refurbished phones and recyclable materials to charities since 1999, according the report. The report can be found at www.informinc.org.