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Where Cell Phones Go to Die

People are recycling more mobile phones each year.
August 19, 2008

If you’ve recently replaced your cell phone, you’re not alone. More than half a billion cell phones were swapped for newer models in 2007, according to a study by the research firm Gartner. In the past, these phones might have been tossed in the garbage or just stashed in a drawer, but an increasing number of cell-phone vendors are promoting take-back programs, which make recycling an easier option for consumers. A discarded phone has a good chance of landing at ReCellular, the nation’s largest cell-phone recycling facility, which is based in Dexter, MI. If the phone’s in good shape, it’ll be refurbished. Otherwise, it will head to Sims Recycling Solutions, a smelter outside of Chicago.

Photographs by Roy Ritchie

More than half a million phones are sorted…

and tested at ReCellular each month, says Mike Newman, a vice president at the company.

Batteries are removed from the phones that don’t work and recycled separately.

About 60 percent of the phones that arrive at ReCellular can be fixed up and sold again. Of these, 15 percent–the most commonly received models–are refurbished by ReCellular; the company sends the rest to other refurbishing sites in the United States and abroad. Newman says that a phone might come through his ­facility to be refurbished as many as three times.

The phones that can’t be saved are sent to Sims Recycling Solutions, which receives more than 30,000 pounds of them each month. When the phones arrive, they are dumped onto a conveyor belt (above and below) that deposits them in a shredder.

Shards of plastic, metal, and fiberglass are spit out the other side (below). The shredded phones are heated in ovens that incinerate the plastic. What’s left goes into a melting furnace to produce a metal alloy covered with a brownish layer called slag, which consists mostly of silica. The slag is removed and later sold for use in shingles and road construction.

The remaining alloy is cooled into bars.

Workers sample the alloy to determine the percentage of precious metals. Sims sells these metal-alloy bars to other companies, which separate and purify the metals. Mark Glavin, a Sims vice president, says that the facility can recover 80 ounces of silver, eight ounces of gold, and three ounces of palladium from a ton of cell phones. That’s about $1 of metal per phone.

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