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Half A Billion Old U.S. Cell Phones Could Be Recycled

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(credit: KTVT/KTXA) Jeff Ray
Jeff joined CBS 11 and TXA 21 in December 2010. He came to North T...
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NORTH TEXAS (CBS 11 NEWS) – When you read the history of the cell phone in the United States what stands out is the exponential growth of the technology.

Within 25 years the cell phone count went from near zero to more than 300 million cell phones currently active on the networks. Yes, there are more active cell phones in the U.S. than people, a testament to the number of us that have both a work phone and a personal one.

The business model is very technological driven. Improvements in cell phone capacity and ability continue to rise along the Moore’s Law curve.

Most consumers, especially younger ones, love new technology and they’re encouraged with upfront costs buffeted by cell phone companies. You know how it works; buy your new smart phone at a deep discount but sign for a two-year service plan in order to operate it.

You can buy a new 4S iPhone in China but the carriers there don’t operate on the same business model. In China iPhones are going for about $800. Ironic when you consider that the phone is made in China at Foxx Industries.

People rarely use a phone all the way to the end of its designed lifetime. Most are getting new phones about every one to two years when their contract allows for an upgrade to the newest and latest.

So what happens to all those old cell phones? I bet you have one or two lying around your house somewhere in a drawer. There is personal data on that phone and you probably don’t feel comfortable throwing it away. So you don’t. Now, multiply that story by 300 million contracts and users. Then multiply that by 20 years (when the cell phone business evolved more into selling contracts than selling phones, luring in existing and new customers with the “latest” technology) and you ‘ve amassed a colossal number of old cell phones.

The industry has an estimate on the number of old phones — they say about 500 million cell phones are just sitting around, no longer being used. Ninety-percent of the phones sold in America, in the last 25 years, are still out there somewhere. That is half a billion unused phones, just in the United States and it’s also a lot of precious metal and plastic.

CBS 11 News has done a story on HOBI International before. They are based in Dallas and started in the electronic recycling business. They have recently gotten into recycling old cell phones. In fact they just expanded that division of the company, adding capacity and staff. Cell phones now represent 60-percent of company business.

Phones come into HOBI from the cell phone companies and collection sites. Workers refurbish and put back into service more than half of the phones. They are inspected, all the data is erased and the phone repackaged. They are mostly going to secondary phone markets — like those overseas. Some are the replacement phones sent to you when you lose or damage your current phone.

If they can’t reuse the phone it is torn apart for the metal and plastic. The metal is very valuable; there is more gold in a cell phone than the gold found in 10 times its weight of ore.

You might remember a recent national discussion on this country’s rare metal supply. This problem would go away if every America recycled their old computers, TVs and cell phones. There are more reasons to recycle than just environmental ones.

Next week ECOWATCH travels to the Parkland Hospital. Seems the water bill at one facility has dropped by a million gallons a month. We’ll show you why next Thursday at 4 p.m.

If you have any comments or story ideas on recycling please email me at jaray@cbs.com.

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