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Cruel Fate Awaits Discarded Cell Phones

Did you ever wonder what happens to old, outmoded or unwanted cellular phones?

According to the Chicago Tribune newspaper, 100 million cell phones - or mobile phones, as they're also known - are retired each year in the United States alone, as people replace them with new, spiffier models.

Some of these unwanted portable phones get stuck in drawers, where they repose unnoticed, sometimes for years. Others are tossed into the trash. That's bad for the environment, because they end up in landfills, where their batteries can leak harmful heavy metals into the ecosystem.

Many electronics stores provide collection bins for discarded cell phones, computers and the like, and charities sometimes round them up in scrap drives. One company called GreenPhone even pays those who send in unused phones and plants a tree for every phone it receives.

What happens to the obsolete phones that are turned in isn't pretty. They end up at a company like Sims Recyling Solutions in Chicago, which, the Tribune reports, processes 91,000 kilos of cell phones a year. Sims removes the batteries and crunches the phones to bits, then melts the shards and rubble in furnaces. What comes out is an amalgam of metals - plus slag from the plastic and glass and impurities.

The metal amalgam is sent to a different recycler that can extract valuable copper and aluminum and a little bit of gold for reuse in other electronic products. The slag goes to yet another recyling facility, where it's fashioned into things like sound-barrier walls that one sees along highways and around industrial plants.

But according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, only 10 percent of discarded cell phones are recycled and reborn. That means there are millions and millions of them still passing the days in limbo in those dark, disregarded drawers.

Read more of Ted's personal reflections and stories from the road on his blog, Ted Landphair's America.