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Telephone Lines

By on December 12th, 2012

Ah, the telephone. My 78-year-old aunt still has her old, 1960s-era wall-mounted rotary-dial Bakelite phone and man does it have the best sound quality ever, far better than any cell or even landline phone made these days. Naturally, she tells my mother, the phone company (I don’t know which one) has been trying to persuade her to get rid of it. Good luck with that. Anyway, I do recall a time when we held on to things for a long time; I think we had pretty much the same telephone all through my childhood—it was certainly far different from today where we replace our phones on average about every two years or so. I don’t recall the topic of telephone recycling ever having come up before—there was simply very little need for it.

But things change.

Marc Gunther has a post this week at Sustainable Business Forum about a claim we here at the Blog likely saw and smiled bemusedly at:

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.

Aside from the guy with the really long and creepy fingernails and the World’s Heaviest Human who had to be buried in a piano crate, I can’t say I have ever really paid much attention to the Guinness Book of World Records* (today known as Guinness World Records). But he makes a good point:

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.

This then inspired an attempt to instigate a Battle of the World Records with only one clear winner, really: “The Guinness World Record people — who, it turns out,  charge $7,000 to $15,000, plus expenses, to adjudicate and certify records.” Yowza.

I agree that we need better metrics for electronics recycling, but I am unsure that the Guinness World Records is the solution. There is an even bigger problem: each carrier is actually measuring something different:

AT&T includes only handheld wireless devices, an industry guideline set by CTIA, the wireless trade association. Sprint’s number includes tablets, hot spots and mobile broadband cards.

We need better metrics and better transparency for dealing with not only cellphone recycling, but recycling of all manner of electronics. Ebook readers come to mind.

The conversation about metrics and transparency leads to this rather clumsy segué into another story I came across this week at Sustainable Business Forum, about eco-labels and what a morass it has traditionally been. Unfortunately, many companies are simply using eco-labels as an extension of branding—differentiating their product from others in the same category—rather than as a gauge of sustainability or an educational tool for customers. And, of course, who can blame them?

There is some sense that the eco-label jungle is clearing (if that’s the best analogy to use) but I think there are two dangers with regard to eco-labels. The first is manufacturers having too big a hand in drafting the criteria for an eco-label or a certification (obviously they shouldn’t be cut out of the process completely), and the second is growing cynicism that all eco-labels are worthless (the fallout of the Apple/EPEAT situation is one example). Naturally, the first leads to the second.

I’ll take this opportunity to repeat the 4 Rs of a good eco-label or certification program: it must be Reputable, Relevant, Rigorous, and Recognized widely. I remain convinced that eco-labels and certifications can be effective; the Sustainable Green Printing (SGP) Partnership in our own industry is one excellent example of those Rs at work.

 

* OK, I tell a lie. When I was in the fourth grade, Danny Grabowski and I had a mad idea to get into the Guinness Book of World Records by setting the record for the “longest time standing.” I don’t recall that we made it more than two days. We must have bemused our hometoom teacher; when we came in one morning, our chairs had been taken away!