How Cell Phones are Recycled

By Sophia Bennett March 4, 2014

Cell phones are one of the most frequently replaced items out there. According to Wirefly, an online cell phone retailer, the average American gets a new cell phone every 18 months. As a result, 130 million cell phones are disposed of every year, creating an estimated 65,000 tons of electronic waste.

Recycling cell phones through reuse and repair

Many smartphones still have enough value that they can be resold. But, what about those that cannot? At ERI, we have a safe, responsible process to ensure your cell phone is recycled and all its components are returned to responsible parties that will reuse them. Stephen Cazares and Anwar Washington from the asset management department at our Fresno, CA, recycling facility walked us through the recycling process.

Cell phones come from various partners that include electronics retailers and local governments. Rather than trying to count every single phone, we weigh them to get an estimate of how many are in each box (it takes about three cell phones to equal 1 pound). Then they are transferred to the asset management department for processing.

The first step is to pull out those valuable smartphones and determine if they can be resold, Cazares says. ERI’s recycling staff can even do minor repairs, such as replacing select parts or fixing speakers, to get phones back into working condition. All the reusable phones are set aside for sale to a vendor.

How ERI recycles phones that cannot be reused

Non-reusable phones include smartphones that have sustained major damage such as shattered screens, or older phones that are no longer marketable. Cazares confirms that ERI still receives some pretty dated equipment, like the “brick” phones that were available in the 1990s as mobiles surged in popularity.

“You’d be surprised at some of the old, old phones that come through here,” he reports. “They look like movie props.”

To begin the recycling process, ERI’s staff removes the plastic back from the phone. It is placed in a gaylord, which is a large cardboard box commonly used in the recycling industry, and saved for recycling. ERI has vendors that buy boxes of cell phone plastic, which is a recognized commodity.

Next, staff members remove the lithium-ion battery and set it aside for recycling. “You do not want those batteries to end up in a landfill,” Cazares says. Lithium-ion batteries contain metals such as nickel, zinc and cadmium, none of which should be sitting around in large quantities waiting to negatively affect human and environmental health. The metals also have a good market value.

A battery recycler can pull out these metals, recycle them and put them back to use in new batteries or other products. They also remove the plastic casing around batteries and recycle it. In rare cases, a battery may be broken or leaking. When that happens, the battery is placed in mineral oil to stabilize it and prevent its components from contaminating the workspace.

Older phones may contain a SIM card, a now-obsolete technology that held a user’s data, including people’s names and phone numbers. SIM cards are removed and shredded to ensure any data on them remains private. They are easy to recycle because they are made of the same plastic as credit cards. The shreds are collected, boxed up and sent to another recycling company.

The carcass of the phone goes into another gaylord for sale to a vendor that will further deconstruct it. Cell phones do not have a lot of valuable commodities, Washington says, but most have a slight amount of gold on the circuit board, and some may contain copper wiring. While older phones are made mostly of plastic, newer phones are manufactured using some aluminum, which does have a resale value.

ERI typically does not receive cell phone accessories such as chargers and hands-free devices. When we do, those are recycled as well. The plastic goes in the cell phone plastic gaylord. The wires contain copper, so we can cut them off and recycle them.

Cazares estimates that ERI received 7,000 pounds of cell phones in February, which translates to approximately 21,000 units. For a glimpse into the cell phone recycling process at ERI’s Fresno facility, see the video below.

If you need someone experienced, trustworthy and reliable to recycle cell phones, we hope you will consider working with ERI. Contact us for more information.