Dropped Calls: Pitt’s CSSD to Roll Out Cell-Phone Recycling Program

Issue Date: 
April 18, 2011


Imagine your mobile phone in a landfill, the plastic impenetrable to decomposition and its innards, exposed to moisture, leaching toxic heavy metals into the soil.

To prevent this environmental fallout on a mass scale, Pitt’s Computing Services and Systems Development (CSSD) office will roll out a universitywide cellular phone recycling program in the coming weeks. Ready-to-ship boxes will be placed in various staffed locations around campus (see below). Students and faculty can simply drop cell phones, PDAs, chargers, and other accessories into a box, and CSSD will ship the filled boxes to Pittsburgh-based eLoop for reuse or recycling. eLoop, which  erases all personal data, is a Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection-permitted demanufacturing facility and a pledged e-Steward with the Basel Action Network, an organization working to prevent the reckless disposal of electronic waste.

The program began as a one-time effort at a few locations to recognize Earth Day 2010, explained Cindy Wertz, services, licensing, and support manager for CSSD. The response was quick and enthusiastic. Between April 22 and June 5, the boxes intercepted more than 400 phones, an untold number of them likely destined for the trash. Once the effort ended, several people contacted CSSD to ask about ditching their old phones.

The ubiquity of cellular phones and the pace at which the technology advances result in billions of old phones being discarded, said Eric Beckman, codirector of Pitt’s Mascaro Center for Sustainable Innovation and a professor of chemical and petroleum engineering in Pitt’s Swanson School of Engineering. People grab a new phone every 18 months on average, and more than one billion phones were sold in 2010, he said.

Beckman teaches a class on green innovation and uses cellular phones as an example of “an environmentally friendly idea gone wrong.” Although mobile phones reduce the need for wired infrastructure, they also pack a host of plastics and potentially toxic metals into a device that is inherently disposable, he said. Once in the ground, many of the phone’s components break down and enter the environment.

“The plastic and metals packed into one 115-gram phone aren’t a lot … for one phone,” he said. “But by selling a billion cell phones, we basically distribute 6 million pounds of lead, cadmium, chromium, and tantalum around the globe in a device that is essentially designed to last a few years and then be thrown away. Any effort to recycle them is inherently good.”

The CSSD campaign is one of many initiatives at Pitt that help students and faculty rid themselves of the many scraps from our technological lives.

On another front, Pitt’s Facilities Management has stationed tubes in 11 campus locations (see below) since September 2010. So far, the tall, slender depositories have collected 1,300 pounds of batteries, which are collected by Scott Electric for recycling, said Laura Zullo, senior manager of energy initiatives for Facilities. Also, Facilities collects batteries and electronics by request, Zullo said. Facilities recycled 7.5 tons of batteries and 6.9 tons of electronics in fiscal year 2010 (July 2009-June 2010) alone.

In addition, Pitt’s Surplus Property office recycles and reuses “e-waste,” the discarded computers, printers, printer cartridges, and related equipment that would otherwise languish in a spare room or a trash heap. Equipment is picked up by appointment.

The excess techno-junk that people relegate to a drawer or some other hideaway makes CSSD organizational communications manager Orr Goehring, who is working with Wertz on the recycling campaign, confident the permanent phone-recycling campaign will catch on. Before CSSD’s trial program, he had three phones with no function beyond playthings for his toddler daughter.

“I didn’t want those phones to end up in a landfill, but I had no idea of how to dispose of them safely or conveniently,” he said. “There are plenty of people hanging on to old phones because they don’t know how to get rid of them. We want to give them this option.”

Cell Phone, Battery Drop-Off Locations in Oakland

Cell Phones (drop boxes are staffed)
• Any campus computing lab
• Hillman Library
• Mascaro Center for Sustainable Innovation
(153 Benedum Hall)
• Software Licensing Services (204 Bellefield Hall)
• University Book Center

• Sutherland Hall (main entrance)
• Litchfield Tower A (main lobby)
• Lothrop Hall (main lobby)
• William Pitt Union (Forbes Avenue entrance)
• Cathedral of Learning (ground floor near vending machines)
• Benedum Hall (main lobby)
• Lawrence Hall (main entrance)
• Posvar Hall (first-floor-elevator lobby)
• Trees Hall (main lobby)
• Crawford Hall (second-floor-entrance lobby)
• Parran Hall (ground-floor lobby)

Helpful links
• CSSD: www.technology.pitt.edu
• Facilities Management: www.facmgmt.pitt.edu
• Surplus Property: www.surplus.pitt.edu