Hope Phones is one of those “Gosh, yes!” ideas:
- Get people to donate old cell phones to a recycling company
- Get recycling company to assign each phone a value
- Use value to trade for refurbished phones
- Donate refurbished phones to clinics in developing countries to use for sending health-related text messages
- Good begets good
Stanford student Josh Nesbit, who came up with the scheme, spent last summer at a tiny hospital in rural Malawi armed with 100 refurbished phones ($10 per), a used laptop and some free software called FrontlineSMS for managing text messages. Could he set up a phone network to deliver more and better health care to the 250,000 people living in the region served by the hospital?
Phones were given to a group of volunteer community health workers who support the hospital’s two (count’em two) staff doctors, traveling dozens of miles by motorbike and on foot each day to meet patients. It was the first time some of them they had ever used a phone. $500 was allocated as the annual budget for messages (10 cents per = 5,000).
The wins were immediate and sizable. In the first six months, the hospital saved $3,000 in motorbike fuel, shaved off 3,500 hours in staff travel time, while doubling the number of TB patients served. Nesbit, pumped by such a simple triumph of tech-for-the-greater good, now wants to scale up the project and duplicate it Bangladesh, Burundi, Honduras, Uganda, Lesotho and additional clinics in Malawi. Which means phones. Lots of phones.
But Hope Phones may prove to be an even better idea than he realizes.
As amazing and essential as cell phones have become, their disposal is a logistical and hazmat nightmare. Even in a down economy, well over a billion cell phones and smartphones are sold each year. According to the EPA, between 100 million and 130 million discarded phones are sitting in drawers in the U.S., mostly because people don’t know what to do with them. (Some estimates peg the annual number “retired” handsets at 155 million, which translates 426,000 per day. Taking current recycling numbers into account, then rolling over the surplus from year to year, the number of stashed phones can probably be measured in the hundreds of millions.)
If nothing else, it is a giant waste of energy. According ot the EPA:
If Americans recycled 100 million phones, we could save enough upstream energy to power more than 194,000 U.S. households for a year. If consumers were able to reuse those 100 million cell phones, the environmental savings would be even greater, saving enough energy to power more than 370,000 U.S. homes each year.
Most Americans, of course, want the upgrade, not last year’s model. The average life expectancy of a phone in the U.S. is a fleeting 18 months. Still, they are more than good enough for sending basic SMS messages, so it’s a matter of getting them to where they’re needed and wanted.
Filed under: conflict minerals, disease surveillance, energy, eWaste, innovation, mobile devices, recycling | Tagged: Acumen Fund, coltan, conflict minerals, cradle to cradle, cradle-to-grave, Daniel Goleman, e-waste, Ecological Intelligence, Frontline SMS, Hope Phones, Jacqueline Novogratz, Josh Nesbit, m-health, mobile health, recycling, reman, remanufacturing, The Blue Sweater, tungsten | 6 Comments »