Sprint announces aggressive phone-recycling plans

With an estimated 44% of all mobile phones sitting around unused, many handset and service providers are working to keep gear from landing in landfills. On Thursday, Sprint announced an initiative to, by 2017, recycle or reuse 90% of all mobile phones compared with annual wireless device sales.

Sprint did some polling and found that nine out of ten households had at least one dead or decommissioned mobile phone hanging around; Nokia, in an earlier survey, said the total number of inert handsets works out to 44% of all mobile phones ever sold. And phones, unlike some tech gear, can be wholly recycled into new products -- if they can't simply be refurbished and re-deployed. Still, more than 140 million handsets get tossed each year in the US, and most of them go to landfills.

And so Sprint is laying out two paths for your recycling and junk-gear-closet-clearing convenience. The first, the long-running Sprint Project Connect, is open to anyone, Sprint customer or not. Grab a postage-paid envelope from a participating Sprint store, or print out the postage-paid label on the site, and mail your debris to the company. They'll recycle it. Any net proceeds will do to their 4NetSafety kids' program; since 2002, the company's sent $6 million to the cause through Project Connect.

Of course, there are those who not only don't care about recycling but don't want to do the charitable thing either. For Sprint customers fitting that description, the Sprint Buyback program may be more suitable. Type in your account number and see if your handset(s) is/are eligible for an account credit on return. The device can't be a complete wreck -- it has to power on, the battery has to be included, and rattling from inside the case is discouraged -- but if you'd like a little financial gain from doing a good thing, it's worth checking into. Amounts vary but can go as high as $50 per handset.

(Side note: Whichever path you choose, you should be sure to wipe your personal data from your phone -- good policy even when consigning an older handset to the junk drawer, to be frank. ReCellular's Data Eraser is one good, free tool for doing so. Sprint says they intent to wipe every phone that they refurbish, but why wouldn't you take care of your data security yourself?)

Once the handsets are out of your hands, according to Sprint, over 90% of the gathered phones can be refurbished, parted out, used for testing, or given to community loan programs. The handsets that go into recycling and reuse programs fall under the company's Zer0 e-Waste policy, which ensures that none of the gear enters the "waste stream" (eg., landfills or incinerators), and nothing gets dumped in underdeveloped countries or in places like China.

Your phone might, however, end up on your roof; among the many reincarnation paths for phone components are jewelry, lawn furniture, and shingles.

The 90% goal announced today was derived from the company's 2008 Corporate Social Responsibility report, in which Sprint's CSR steering committee announced 12 serious sustainability goals for the company. Other goals on that list include a 15% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, the sourcing of 10% of the company's energy from renewable sources, the recycling of 50% of operational waste from commercial facilities, and reuse or recycling of 95% of network or IT e-waste. All of those initiatives aim for the 2017 timeframe.

The 90% reclamation goal is believed to be the most aggressive in the industry to date.

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