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April 23, 2012

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Calling for a solution to the city's millions of unwanted cell phones

SINCE Gong Guifang's family bought its first cell phone in the 1990s, the three-member household has gone through nearly 20 mobiles.

That's a lot of old hardware sitting on shelves, collecting dust.

"I don't want to sell them to some roadside cell phone dealers," Gong said, worrying about personal information that may still be on the phones.

Gong's situation, multiplied many fold in one of the world's largest cell phone markets, contributes to a vast "e-waste" problem recently highlighted in the Beijing-based China Youth Daily. The paper said about 100 million cell phones are discarded each year.

Citing a United Nations report, the paper said e-waste from discarded mobile phones has grown about sevenfold in China since 2007. That volume is expected to increase as phone use rises and the blitz of newer, fancier models on the market makes last year's phones unfashionable.

About 10 percent of Chinese give away old cell phones to relatives or friends, 40 percent toss them in boxes at home and about half sell the used electronics to second-hand cell phone dealers, according to the newspaper.

Shanghai people are estimated to replace about 6.9 million phones a year.

The city reported mobile phone number of more than 23 million by the end of 2010 - about one for every Shanghai resident. A report by Ericsson ConsumerLab earlier this month estimated that Chinese urban users change handsets every 40 months.

Many think that recycling old phones is the answer to the mounting problem. If so, that concept is off to a slow start.

Shanghai Jinqiao Renewable Resources Center, the largest of the city's electronics waste recyclers, reports annual collection volume of only 30,000 phones. People don't stop and think seriously about proper disposal of the old hardware, recyclers said.

"I know how to recycle batteries," Gong admitted, "but I don't know how to recycle the cell phones."

China was adept at setting up recycling systems for disused computers, televisions, refrigerators, air conditioners and washing machines when it started the old-for-new home appliance subsidy program. But phones were not included.

"The cell phone is not a focus of our recycling work," said Yuan Dan, an assistant manager at Jinqiao Renewable Resources, a government-sponsored entity that collects standard e-waste. "Without government subsidies, we can offer only 5 yuan (79 US cents) to consumers for each cell phone they turn in," he said.

Some illegal cell phone dealers offer up to 200 yuan for relatively new, still functioning phones. However, health hazards arise when unlicensed dealers incinerate phones to retrieve valuable metals. These can release cancer-causing agents.

It's obvious that the mounting problem of used phones may require some government subsidies to ensure proper handling and disposal. Financial incentives would help recyclers compete with unauthorized scrap collectors and foster the start-up of programs that provide home pickup services to encourage greater public participation.

Mao Yunshi, a national political advisor, has called on the government to pay more attention to the phone-disposal problem. He suggests phone manufacturers foot the bill for programs through special levies.

"I understand that electronics should not go to the garbage bin because they will pollute the environment," Gong said. "I only wish they could be recycled as easily as batteries and other electronic goods."


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