First came basic cell phones, then camera phones, then the Blackberry, now the iPhone.
Each year something newer and better comes out, and environmentalists are concerned about hazards that come when masses of people chuck their outdated phones into the trash.
So, starting in January in Maine, it will be illegal to throw them out. Instead, people can bring them back to any store selling cell phones – they’ll be required by law to accept and recycle them.
The measure also requires service providers to report back to the Department of Environmental Protection annually with the number of cell phones collected.
It’s all part of a new Maine law aimed at keeping mercury and other toxic chemicals out of the environment.
The law, sponsored by Rep. Christopher Babbidge, D-Kennebunk, passed unanimously in both legislative chambers in June. The bill had nine co-sponsors including Rep. Richard Wagner, D-Lewiston.
Matt Prindiville, toxics policy advocate for the Natural Resources Council of Maine, said that about 1 percent of cell phones are recycled, and 450,000 are tossed out each year. The phones release mercury, arsenic, lead and flame retardants into the air, soil and drinking water, Prindiville said.
Cell phone dumping joins other concerns about discarded electronics releasing chemicals, but Prindiville said that their nature is changing to embrace recycling.
“The future of electronics is (items) that can be easily broken down and recycled,” Prindiville said.
While the law makes it illegal to toss out a phone, it does not establish any penalties.
A quick survey of area cell phone stores showed that most were already in compliance with the law. In addition, many carriers have postage-paid mail-in services.
Mid-Coast Cellular on Lisbon Street in Lewiston collects phones and gives them to RecycleFirst, a national recycling service. Owner Linda Holbrook said they get phones back “not that frequently” – about 200 a year.
Unicel’s Auburn locations were the only two surveyed that did not have drop-off cell phone recycling. However, a spokeswoman based in Minnesota said the company collects and sorts old phones, and it is store policy to collect them.
Prindiville said that even though most stores already recycle, the law was needed to simplify the process.
Cell phone recycling service ReCellular collects old phones from many of the major service providers, said company Vice President Mike Newman from Dexter, Mich.
The company takes any phone in any condition, Newman said. Phones that are in working condition – about 60 percent – are rehabilitated, tested and resold with warranties. Those that are not usable are broken down and recycled.
About 4 million cell phones are collected nationwide each year by ReCellular. Used phones sell for $3 up to $150. The recycling process helps many people have cell phones who could not otherwise afford then, Newman said.
The company tries to alleviate data security concerns by helping people make sure their personal information is cleared from the phone before it is handed over, he added.
Several other states have taken measures to increase recycling, but Maine’s law is the most aggressive that he’s seen, Newman said.