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April 2008

Release Date: April 3, 2008

Add Recycling to Your Circle

Cell phones and printer ink-jet cartridges have become essential every day items for many people in the U.S., but when discarded, these objects are also becoming an every day problem for the nation’s landfills.

To help combat this growing dilemma, Angelo State University’s Biology Department has started a new program to recycle old cell phones and ink-jet cartridges. Organizers are also hoping to heighten public awareness of the problem as the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that about 130 million cell phones alone have already been discarded in the U.S., representing about 65,000 tons of waste dumped into landfills.

“Everybody has cell phones now and just about everyone who has ever had one has already replaced it with a new one,” said Dr. Robert Dowler, ASU biology professor. “Some of the places where you buy new ones have a box to put the old ones in. But, many of them don’t and people wonder what to do with their old phones.”

The new recycling program has drop-off boxes in Room 109 of the Cavness Science Building and on the first floor of the Mayer Administration Building near the vending machines. The San Angelo Friends of the Environment (SAFE) Recycling Center will also take the items and hold them for collection by ASU students involved in the program.

The discarded items will then be sold at the going rate of a few cents to a few dollars each to different companies that either recycle or reuse them. Many of the ink-jet cartridges will be refurbished, refilled and resold, while many of the cell phones will be reconditioned and sold to developing countries.

“Some models they really want, but some they don’t pay anything for,” Dowler said. “Some companies guarantee that if they don’t use the items, they won’t end up in a landfill and will be recycled in a responsible way. Some take only printer cartridges, some take only cell phones and some take both.”

Money raised through the program will go into the Angelo State Natural History Collections (ASNHC) Endowment Fund, which supports research and student projects associated with ASNHC and maintenance of the collections.

The ASNHC currently includes more than 100,000 specimens of mammals, reptiles, amphibians, birds and plants from Texas, many other states, Mexico, Africa, Asia, Australia and even the Gal�pagos Islands. Besides research projects, the collections are used as teaching tools and are viewed by thousands of K-12 students every year through special programs like ASU Science Days. The ASNHC Endowment Fund currently sits at about $28,000.

“The question is, will we make enough money for it to be worth it for the endowment fund,” Dowler said. “But, I think we will.”

Besides the physical bulk of the cast-off cell phones, toner cartridges and ink-jet cartridges sent to the landfills, there are several other factors that make recycling the items important to the environment.

“There is pollutant toxic waste, including arsenic, lead and cadmium, associated with cell phones and printer cartridges,” he said. “If they are not recycled, they end up in the landfill leaching all that waste. Also, if you can recover them, you don’t have to get as much raw materials from natural areas to make new ones. For example, one of the component parts of cell phones is mined in areas where there are gorillas and the animals are being poached because people are there trying to gather minerals.”

Columbite-tantalite, or “coltan,” is used to make some of the main energy-storing components of electronic devices like computers and cell phones. Currently it is mined primarily in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where the excavation and sale of coltan has financed armed conflicts and led to the decimation of the critically endangered Eastern Lowland gorilla.

EPA reports state that if Americans had recycled 100 million of the 130 million cell phones they have thrown away, enough energy would have been saved to power 200,000 U.S. homes for a year. But, despite being made of mostly reusable materials, only about 20 percent of unwanted cell phones are recycled each year.

“The thing that nobody imagined was how prominent these things would become or how fast they would become outdated,” Dowler said. “Our’s is a throw-away society, so these old cell phones and printer cartridges are all being added to the waste stream. From an environmental impact perspective, the primary thing is to keep them out of the landfill.”

“If you can get students involved with these programs,” he added, “you are educating them about that potential impact and how discarded cell phones could actually be damaging the environment.”

More information on the recycling program is available by contacting the ASU Biology Department at 942-2175.