According to the research organization Worldwatch Institute, cell phone use grew from one percent of people worldwide in 1992 to 18 percent ten years later. Data from the International Telecommunications Union cites the total number of cellular mobile telephone subscribers in 2002 to be 140,766,800 in more than 75 countries. (World Economic Forum, 2003-4).
Consumers in the U.S. discard their cell phones on average after just 18 months. Yet, cell phones contain toxics-rich semiconductor chips, mercury, cadmium, lead, and galium arsenide. The biggest hazards are the phone's chip-containing circuit board, liquid crystal display, and batteries—followed by the hard-to-recycle plastic casing. See Worldwatch Institute’s “Good Stuff?” page in “web resources,” below.
Disposal and environmental impact
Members of the cell phone industry estimate that in 2003 there were 500 million old cell phones either going unused or already in the waste stream, and that 100 million more are discarded each year. A Green Living Magazine report cites research from the group INFORM, indicating that 500 million phones in landfills could leach as many as 142 tons of lead.
Uses of recycled phones and parts
Recycled phones and their parts (batteries and cords) can be used overseas by people who can't get or cannot afford regular telephone service. Either phones may be re-programmed and re-used, or working phones may be made from scraps. Used phones from the U.S. may cost about 25 percent of the price of a new phone in developing countries.
In the U.S., there are a number of programs that accept phones to support a variety of charitable efforts. Some of the most established programs use the phones, as well as proceeds from resale and recycling, to benefit victims of domestic violence and domestic violence shelters.