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Discarded cell phones piling up

Toxic chemicals end up in landfills

Environmental research group Inform estimates that by 2005 there will be 500 million old cell phones gathering dust.  

From Natalie Pawelski

(CNN) -- In a recent CNN experiment, more than 50 old and discarded cell phones were gathered throughout the newsroom in a matter of just two days.

It's symptomatic of a much larger problem.

According to a new study by environmental research group Inform, people living in the United States will soon be getting rid of about 130 million mobile phones every year.

"That's about 65,000 tons of cell phones and ultimately they are thrown away," says Joanna Underwood, spokesperson for Inform.

Manufacturers offer a steady stream of newer, multi-function models, prompting the average customer to purchase a new wireless phone every 18 to 24 months.

"It's just like wearing old clothes," says Sheryl Sellway of Verizon Wireless. "You want the latest and the greatest, right? So it's the same with a phone."

When you buy a new cell phone, what do you do with the old one?

Throw it away
Recycle it
Donate it
Keep it
I don't use cell phones
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Cell phone stats

- U.S. has 137 million cell phone subscribers
- Cell phone service introduced in U.S. in 1983
- Industry claims one new customer every two seconds
- Predicted 2007 U.S. cell usage: 456 billion minutes
- U.S. average user monthly cell phone bill about $47

Cell phones have also shrunk to a convenient size, making the purchase of a new one even more tempting to the average buyer.

"Ten years ago cell phones weighed two pounds. Now they weigh three ounces," said Kimberly Kuo of the Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association (CTIA).

The hang up

The problem is that cell phones contain toxic chemicals such as arsenic, lead and zinc. They also harbor several substances that have been linked to various health problems.

"Cell phones, as small as they are and as innocent as they look, contain a very wide variety of toxic chemicals," says Inform's Underwood.

Although the toxins found in cell phones are not considered a danger to people using them, they are not necessarily something that should be populating landfills.

So what can be done to help the cause?

If you have an old cell phone that you are not using anymore, but you don't want to get rid of it, one option is to donate it. Verizon's "Hope Line" program accepts any make and model of old cell phone. The phones are refurbished and donated to battered women's shelters.

"The program has gone national since last November and in that time we have collected over 150,000 phones," said Verizon's Sellway.

Members from the CTIA say they have been pushing a similar kind of recycling program through its Wireless Foundation during the last few years with other phone manufacturers, and say they can offer consumers details on what to do with their old phones.

Inform estimates that by 2005 there will be 500 million old cell phones gathering dust.

Without a plan to deal with them, that's a lot of phones to put on hold.


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