Will Apple's iPhone 5 launch a new era for e-waste recycling?

Will Apple's iPhone 5 launch a new era for e-waste recycling?

The rapidly-growing e-waste recycling industry eagerly waiting for the release of the new iPhone 5, as smartphone users around the world are ready to ditch their old phones and embrace the new. E-waste recyclers are at the ready to accept their offerings. But will all the hype of the potential market truly be a turning point for the industry – or simply another marketing tool to make consumers aware that their electronic devices are indeed recyclable?

Many e-waste companies were not quiet about their anticipation of the new iPhone.

"There are going to be millions of people buying the new iPhone 5,” said ecoATM chairman and CEO Tom Tullie in a press release. “When they do, we want there to be an ecoATM nearby for them to cash in or recycle their old phones.”

Tuile's San Diego-based company recently expanded installation of its cell phone buy-back kiosks in malls across the country. The company’s automatic, self-service kiosks evaluate and purchase old and broken phones and are reportedly able to refurbish 75 percent of the devices it collects.

The U.S. Postal Service is working with the e-waste group MaxBack on a marketing program to buy back smart phones. And metals giant Green Technology Solutions (GTSO) has also been gearing up for the change. Its mining subsidiary plans to purchase the U.S. e-waste recycler GlobalCellBuyers. GTSO has also entered into negotiations with another e-waste recycling firm in Latin America.

Nearly 2.5 million tons of electronics were discarded just in the U.S. in 2010, creating “an incredible windfall of lithium, gold, neodymium, rare earths and other valuable materials headed for the dump,” said GTSO CEO Paul Watson. “Soon, we plan to send it to the bank, instead.”

Smart phone recycling image by Pavel Ignatov via Shutterstock.

But those numbers, some industry observers say, may have little to do with iPhones ending up as e-waste.

“There’s a market for all models of iPhones,” said Andy Bates, Vice-President of the Colo.-based Wireless Alliance – a cell phone recycling company that has about 14,000 collection points nationwide and brings in up to 80,000 cell phones a month. “That iPhone is going to be reused 99 percent of the time; it doesn’t have a major impact on e-waste. It will be [recycled] at some point, but not until something better comes along.”

The telecommunications companies are also getting in on the act. Verizon has a wireless trade-in program where customers can get their electronic devices appraised and then valued via an electronic gift card. “So for customers with old iPhones looking to upgrade, this is a great program to dispose of it properly and get some value in return,” said Ray McConville, with Verizon media relations. McConville notes the program has diverted 75 tons of e-waste from landfills.

Apple has reportedly sold more than 240 million iPhones – and about 85 million iPhones in the U.S. alone -- since the line first launched in 2007. The company has its own recycling program, and last year exceeded its global recycling goal of 70 percent. And while it's not known just how many of those iPhones that have been recycled rather than refurbished, the new smart phones have certainly raised consumer awareness of sustainability issues when it comes to their electronic devices.

“The general public is certainly becoming more aware of electronics recycling in general, compared to just a few years back,” said Andy Bates. “One main reason may be, in regards to phones at least, is that their old device may just be worth some good money and throwing a phone away is not the best option.”