Device recycling standards could make mobile friendlier

BARCELONA—Here’s an interesting exercise: Take a minute and think about how many cell- and smartphones you’ve owned in your digital life. Now try and remember what you did with them once you upgraded to a new handset. Do you know? Are they perhaps still sitting forgotten in the back of a drawer somewhere?

It’s possible that you traded your old handset in to your carrier in exchange for credit, or maybe you donated it to charity (good on ya!), or if you’re of the uber-techy variety maybe you turned it into a mobile game device or upcycled it into a remote control. But considering the statistics, it’s quite likely that you’ve thrown away a handset or two—there are over 2.1 billion mobile phones and tablets on the market, and fewer than 10 percent of them wind up being renewed.

That’s a big problem, and it’s getting bigger, as more than 1.7 billion wireless devices are produced each year. Tossing a handset in the trash has some rather gross environmental side effects, since each one can contain toxins and harmful materials such as arsenic, lead, and mercury—not the kind of things you want seeping into the ground water.

The Device Renewal Forum (DRF) has been taking steps to reverse the tide of tech waste by joining forces with several companies—including Sprint Nextel, eRecyclingCorps, and Electronics Recycling Services—to agree to high standards when recycling or renewing old mobile devices. At Mobile World Congress, the DRF announced an official standard for renewing devices that includes military-grade data wiping, environmentally responsible recycling of materials, and a database to check for stolen handsets.

The standard, called the DRF Device Renewal and Acceptance Criteria, ensures that facilities that recycle materials in mobile handsets meet health, safety, and environmental standards, and that handsets that are renewed for secondary users pass through a quality assurance and certification process. The standard also includes a database of serial numbers so when a handset is turned in, the collecting agency can run it to ensure that the phone hasn’t been stolen. If a device is found to be stolen, the agency will still take the phone for recycling, but will not allow it to be traded in for cash.

The ultimate goal is to double the amount of handsets that are renewed in the next five years, both to preserve the environment and extend the life of technology by passing it along to a second user (often in a developing nation). Ensuring that each handset is still performing properly also improves the network for all users, as the RF chips in poorly refurbished handsets can cause problems for the entire cell network.

The ideal that the DRF is striving for can be seen in companies like ecoATM (seen above in a YouTube clip), which produces kiosks where users can turn in their old devices for cash, much like a Coinstar will turn coins into paper money. Users can opt to donate part of their earnings to charities, and each phone is scanned to make sure it’s not damaged or stolen. The hope is that one day; refurbished phones will be treated much like pre-owned cars: Adhering to rigorous standards of quality while still providing cheaper goods for users.

The DRF is working to add even more partners to its group to increase the number of members that will adhere to these standards of high-quality products and environmental responsibility while cutting down on the theft and resale of stolen devices and providing a new life for handsets in developing nations. We’re pulling for them, not just because we think it’s the right thing to do, but also because we can’t wait to trade in our old handsets in one of those nifty kiosks.

For comprehensive coverage of the Android ecosystem, visit Greenbot.com.

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