Sorry, wrong number: AT&T's recycling claim doesn't add up

Sprint is not the biggest cell phone company, but it is the most environmentally-friendly by most accounts. Sprint ranked No. 3 of all U.S. companies in Newsweek’s annual Green Rankings, well ahead of rivals AT&T (28) and Verizon Communications (54). It offered in-store recycling of mobile devices before AT&T or Verizon.

And when an independent research firm, Compass Intelligence, compared the recycling and reuse programs of the major carriers, Sprint came out on top. What’s more, Sprint’s CEO, Dan Hesse, personally has led the company’s efforts, as I learned when we met a couple of years ago. (See my 2010 blog post, CEO Dan Hesse: Sprinting towards sustainability).

So I was puzzled to see a recent AT&T press release with the headline: AT&T Customers Break World Record for Recycling Wireless Devices. The release said:

By recycling 50,942 devices during a one-week period, AT&T* customers broke the world record for collecting the most wireless devices in a week as certified by Guinness World Records.

It also noted AT&T collected about three million cell phones for reuse and recycling in 2011. The release got a lot of attention, and was widely and uncritically covered: here at the Mother Nature Network, here at Treehugger and here at Environmental Leader.

There’s just one problem.

This so-called world record is all but meaningless. Sprint almost surely recycles a lot more cell phones than AT&T, although direct comparisons are impossible.

Consider: AT&T says it collected 3 million cell phones for reuse and recycling in 2011. Sprint says it collected 11 million in 2011 – an average of more than 200,000 a week, easily topping AT&T’s so-called record.

So what’s going on here? A few things, some good, some not-so-good.

Illustration of hand holding cell phone provided by Pixel Embargo/Shutterstock

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