Within three years, Americans will discard about 130 million cellular telephones a year, and that means 65,000 tons of trash, including toxic metals and other health hazards, a study says.
"Because these devices are so small, their environmental impacts might appear to be minimal," says Bette Fishbein, a researcher at Inform, an environmental research organization, who wrote the report.
But, she says, the growth in cell phone use has been so rapid and enormous "that the environmental and public health impacts of the waste they create are a significant concern."
There are more than 135 million people now registered as users of cell phones and the number is growing, according to the Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association, the industry's trade group.
The study by Inform said that on average a cellular telephone is kept only 18 months and in many cases thrown into a closet or drawer and finally discarded with the household garbage.
By 2005, there will be at least 200 million cell phones in use across the country and another 500 million older phones may be stockpiled in drawers, closets and elsewhere, waiting to be thrown away, the report estimates, based on expected market growth and cell phone purchases in recent years.
Travis Larson, a spokesman for CTIA, the wireless trade group, said the industry has collected more than a million used phones to date and wants to expand its recycling and "donate-a-phone" programs in which private groups collect phones and give proceeds to charity. Many of the phones taken back are resold in developing countries, he said.
Cell phones, along with other "wireless waste" from increasingly popular pagers, pocket PCs and music players, pose special problems at landfills or when they're burned in municipal waste incinerators because they have toxic chemicals in batteries and other components, said the report.
These include persistent toxins that accumulate in the environment, including arsenic, antimony, beryllium, cadmium, copper, lead, nickel and zinc, said the report. These toxins have been associated with cancer and neurological disorders, especially in children.
The report urges the industry to expand measures to reduce the amount of cell phones that are thrown away by developing more "take-back" programs so phones and batteries can be recycled and adopt industrywide technical and design standards so phones are not thrown away after a user switches services.
Larson said the industry, while interested in recycling, opposes efforts to develop a single phone standard. "The wireless industry was built on competition between carriers and between standards," he said.
The report said a number of states including California, Massachusetts and Minnesota are considering legislation that would make manufacturers pay the cost of managing the waste from electronic products, including cell phones.
Internationally, Australia has implemented a nationwide cellphone recycling program and the European Union is considering actions to make manufacturers responsible for electronic product wastes.
By H. Josef Hebert