A visit to the warehouse in which gadgets donated to Cell Phones for Soliders and other charity programs get a second life.
The first thing I noticed when I stepped into Recellular's Ann Arbor warehouse was the flags. From the rafters, the flags of the world oversee the processing of more than four million cell phones each year. Algeria and Mali keep watch as donated phones are sorted by make and model into row after row of labeled plastic trays. Brazil and Poland command dozens of test benches, where workers inspect, clean, and repair used phones for resale. Puerto Rico and Great Britain hang over the upstream holding area, where hundreds of used and refurbished phones wait in addressed boxes to be shipped out to customers. Each flag represents an employee--they add a new flag every time they hire someone from another country.
The flags also emphasize the company's global impact: when you donate a phone to Cell Phones for Soldiers, or Sprint Project Connect, or The March of Dimes, it will end up here. Lots of people think that when they donate to Cell Phones for Soldiers, the phone is actually mailed to Iraq. That wouldn't work very well--our locked down handsets would be rather worthless on Iraq's cell networks. Instead, Recellular resells or recycles the phone and uses some of the profits to buy calling cards for soldiers. The man behind Recellular is the inimitable Chuck Newman. Chuck and his Recellular team recycle over ten thousand used phones every day, which they claim is more than any other cell phone recycler in the world.
Chuck and his brother Allan founded Recellular in 1991, the same year that cell phones switched from analog 1G signals to the digital 2G network. The Newman brothers recognized a trend--people were beginning to upgrade to new cell phones not because their old phones were broken, but because advances in technology had made them obsolete. In this high tech trash, Chuck and Allan saw an opportunity to start a business and to protect the environment--by refurbishing, reusing, and recycling the millions of phones that would have otherwise sat in drawers for years.
The business model proved highly successful. It's news to nobody that the vast majority (83%) of American adults have some sort of cell phone. Worldwide, 1.6 billion cell phones were sold last year. Although people are hanging onto their phones for slightly longer today than they were a few years ago--Americans reported keeping their phones an average of 20.5 months in 2010, up 17% from 2009--most people still upgrade their phone more than once every two years.
I sat down with Chuck this week to discuss some of the larger issues surrounding cell phones. I've been studying the sources and consequences of electronics manufacturing for years and have traveled all around the world, visiting repair shops and e-waste sites. My company, iFixit, is dedicated to increasing the lifespan of our devices, and I value Chuck's perspective on the issue.
Where does this growth stop, I asked? How many phones should we be making each year for a population of 7 billion people? Chuck isn't sure that growth can or should be stopped:
In the capitalistic system, in the marketplace, the people decide what they need or want. It's awfully hard to impose upon them, saying, "You don't really need that." We have the right to get a phone that's smaller and a prettier color if we want. And I think it's pretty clear that there are enormous economic and health benefits to populations having access to communications.
I am also a technology evangelist. The productivity benefits technology brings make our lives easier--but they can also lift someone out of poverty by making a fledgling business profitable. We're just starting to see how pervasive communications are changing lives: it's now possible for a fisherman in Mombasa to check from the docks which market will give him a better price and for a farmer in Haryana to receive life-altering weather updates via SMS.
It's doesn't do any good to have the capacity to manufacture a cell phone for every person in the world if they can't afford it. The real way we to make affordable phones available to the masses is to get phones from people that are done with them to the people that need them.
Every day a phone sits in a drawer is a day it's not being used by someone--and a day closer to compatible cell networks shutting off forever. We need to get the used phones from the drawers of Americans into the hands of people in the developing world. And Recellular is more effective at that than just about any other organization.
There's a market for used phones in America, too. Many customers want nothing more than the ability to make calls and send text messages. Recellular's biggest seller is still the original RAZR, which Motorola stopped manufacturing in 2007. AT&T, and perhaps some other manufacturers, have marketed their refurbished phones as "the eco-conscious choice." "And that is just right," Chuck emphasizes, "they are green phones." Apple's recently updated environmental site supports this claim; manufacturing accounts for 61% of electronics' carbon footprint. That's the same reason a used car is more environmentally friendly along some vectors than a Prius. Reuse is the simplest way to mitigate the environmental impact of manufacturing.
Many large cell phone manufacturers have placed Recellular collection bins in their retail stores to support their cell phone refurbishment programs. Yet only about 10% of defunct phones are recycled, and most people have at least a couple of old cell phones sitting around.
Why? Chuck boils it down to three major reasons ("this is part of my stump speech," he quips with a laugh): first, people need to be aware that they have options for disposing their phone properly. Second, people need to be motivated to recycle. Third, recycling needs to be "really, really easy. Even when people have the best intentions," he explains, "if it requires an action on their part, it's pretty easy to forget."
Even though it's the reason they got into the business, ReCellular has learned that the environmental message isn't very effective. Instead, they distribute postage-paid envelopes for people to send in old phones, donating them to some cause or another. When the envelope says the phone will be donated to charity, 50-80% more phones come in than when it bears a strong environmental message. Through their more than 2,000 charitable and environmental partnerships, they donated more than $3 million to charity in 2009.
The jobs Recellular has created in cell phone repair and reuse are a positive data point in an otherwise flagging Michigan economy. Much of the manufacturing that made the Rust Belt famous has moved overseas, but there's still lots of money to be made--and jobs to be created--remanufacturing electronics. And through reuse and remanufacturing, Recellular makes the world a better place, getting phones to people who need them and helping charities such as Cell Phones for Soldiers reap the rewards.
The Fixers is a documentary project about e-waste in Africa, and the repair technicians who turn our unwanted junk into coveted treasures. Produced by Kyle Wiens, screenplay by Brian X. Chen, and photography by Jon Snyder and Justin Fantl.
Freddie Gray's death on April 19 leaves many unanswered questions. But it is clear that when Gray was arrested in West Baltimore on the morning of April 12, he was struggling to walk. By the time he arrived at the police station a half hour later, he was unable to breathe or talk, suffering from wounds that would kill him.*
Gray died Sunday from spinal injuries. Baltimore authorities say they're investigating how the 25-year-old was hurt—a somewhat perverse notion, given that it was while he was in police custody, and hidden from public view, that he apparently suffered injury. How it happened remains unknown. It's even difficult to understand why officers arrested Gray in the first place. But with protestors taking to the streets of Baltimore since Gray's death on Sunday, the incident falls into a line of highly publicized, fatal encounters between black men and the police. Meanwhile, on Tuesday, a reserve sheriff's deputy in Tulsa, Oklahoma, pleaded not guilty to a second-degree manslaughter charge in the death of a man he shot. The deputy says the shooting happened while he was trying to tase the man. Black men dying at the hands of the police is of course nothing new, but the nation is now paying attention and getting outraged.
After a five-month delay, Loretta Lynch made history last week. On Thursday, the Senate confirmed Lynch as the next U.S. attorney general, the first African American woman ever to hold this Cabinet position. Her long-stalled nomination sometimes seemed in doubt, held hostage to partisan jockeying between Democrats and Republicans. But one political bloc never gave up, relentlessly rallying its support behind Lynch: the black sorority.
During her initial hearing, the seats behind Lynch were filled with more than two dozen of her Delta Sigma Theta Sorority sisters arrayed in crimson-and-cream blazers and blouses, ensuring their visibility on the national stage. These Delta women—U.S. Representatives Marcia Fudge and Joyce Beatty among them—were there to lend moral support and show the committee that they meant business. The Deltas were not alone. The Lynch nomination also drew support from congressional representatives from other black sororities: Alpha Kappa Alpha members Terri Sewell and Sheila Jackson Lee took to the House floor to advocate for a vote while Sigma Gamma Rho members Corinne Brown and Robin Kelly and Zeta Phi Beta member Donna Edwards used social media and press conferences to campaign on Lynch’s behalf.
Where did it come from, and what are its intentions? The simplicity of these questions can be deceiving, and few Western leaders seem to know the answers. In December, The New York Times published confidential comments by Major General Michael K. Nagata, the Special Operations commander for the United States in the Middle East, admitting that he had hardly begun figuring out the Islamic State’s appeal. “We have not defeated the idea,” he said. “We do not even understand the idea.” In the past year, President Obama has referred to the Islamic State, variously, as “not Islamic” and as al-Qaeda’s “jayvee team,” statements that reflected confusion about the group, and may have contributed to significant strategic errors.
Hours after a major earthquake wreaked havoc across his country, Nepali Information Minister Minendra Rijal appeared at a news conference on Saturday to announce that schools would be closed for the next five days. "We never imagined we'd face such devastation," he said.
But for geologists, Saturday's disaster—which has claimed over 2,400 lives—was sadly predictable.
"Physically and geologically what happened is exactly what we thought would happen," James Jackson, head of the earth-sciences department at the University of Cambridge, told the Associated Press.
Blessed with stunning natural scenery, Nepal is a popular tourist destination that attracts hundreds of thousands of travelers each year. But the source of the country's beauty is what makes it particularly vulnerable to earthquakes. Much of Nepal's population lives in a valley beneath the Himalayas, a mountain range formed by collisions between the Indian and Central Asian tectonic plates. These collisions—which occur when the Indian plate slides underneath its much larger neighbor—are what cause earthquakes. According to The Washington Post, a chunk of the earth measuring 75 by 37 miles shifted 10 feet in 30 seconds on Saturday, destroying much of what lay atop the surface.
A lot of Internet ink has been spilled over how lazy and entitled Millennials are, but when it comes to paying for a college education, work ethic isn't the limiting factor. The economic cards are stacked such that today’s average college student, without support from financial aid and family resources, would need to complete 48 hours of minimum-wage work a week to pay for his courses—a feat that would require superhuman endurance, or maybe a time machine.
To take a close look at the tuition history of almost any institution of higher education in America is to confront an unfair reality: Each year’s crop of college seniors paid a little bit more than the class that graduated before. The tuition crunch never fails to provide new fodder for ongoing analysis of the myths and realities of The American Dream. Last week, a graduate student named Randy Olson listened to his grandfather extol the virtues of putting oneself through college without family support. But paying for college without family support is a totally different proposition these days, Olson thought. It may have been feasible 30 years ago, or even 15 years ago, but it's much harder now.
I’m not a dog person. I prefer cats. Cats make you work to have a relationship with them, and I like that. But I have adopted several dogs, caving in to pressure from my kids. The first was Teddy, a rottweiler-chow mix whose bushy hair was cut into a lion mane. Kids loved him, and he grew on me, too. Teddy was probably ten years when we adopted him. Five years later he had multiple organs failing and it was time to put him to sleep.
When I arrived at the vet, he said I could drop him off. I was aghast. No. I needed to stay with Teddy.As the vet prepped the syringe to put him to sleep, I started sobbing. The vet gave me a couple minutes to collect myself and say goodbye. I held Teddy's paw until he died. Honestly, I didn't think I was that attached.
Take a walk along West Florissant Avenue, in Ferguson, Missouri. Head south of the burned-out Quik Trip and the famous McDonalds, south of the intersection with Chambers, south almost to the city limit, to the corner of Ferguson Avenue and West Florissant. There, last August, Emerson Electric announced third-quarter sales of $6.3 billion. Just over half a mile to the northeast, four days later, Officer Darren Wilson killed Michael Brown. The 12 shots fired by Officer Wilson were probably audible in the company lunchroom.
Outwardly, at least, the City of Ferguson would appear to occupy an enviable position. It is home to a Fortune 500 firm. It has successfully revitalized a commercial corridor through its downtown. It hosts an office park filled with corporate tenants. Its coffers should be overflowing with tax dollars.
Whenever a college student asks me, a veteran high-school English educator, about the prospects of becoming a public-school teacher, I never think it’s enough to say that the role is shifting from "content expert" to "curriculum facilitator." Instead, I describe what I think the public-school classroom will look like in 20 years, with a large, fantastic computer screen at the front, streaming one of the nation’s most engaging, informative lessons available on a particular topic. The "virtual class" will be introduced, guided, and curated by one of the country’s best teachers (a.k.a. a "super-teacher"), and it will include professionally produced footage of current events, relevant excerpts from powerful TedTalks, interactive games students can play against other students nationwide, and a formal assessment that the computer will immediately score and record.
In her new book No One Understands You and What To Do About It, Heidi Grant Halvorson tells readers a story about her friend, Tim. When Tim started a new job as a manager, one of his top priorities was communicating to his team that he valued each member’s input. So at team meetings, as each member spoke up about whatever project they were working on, Tim made sure he put on his “active-listening face” to signal that he cared about what each person was saying.
But after meeting with him a few times, Tim’s team got a very different message from the one he intended to send. “After a few weeks of meetings,” Halvorson explains, “one team member finally summoned up the courage to ask him the question that had been on everyone’s mind.” That question was: “Tim, are you angry with us right now?” When Tim explained that he wasn’t at all angry—that he was just putting on his “active-listening face”—his colleague gently explained that his active-listening face looked a lot like his angry face.
Soon, thousand of police officers across the country will don body-worn cameras when they go out among the public. Those cameras will generate millions of hours of footage—intimate views of commuters receiving speeding tickets, teens getting arrested for marijuana possession, and assault victims at some of the worst moments of their lives.
As the Washington Post and the Associated Press have reported, lawmakers in at least 15 states have proposed exempting body-cam footage from local open records laws. But the flurry of lawmaking speaks to a larger crisis: Once those millions of hours of footage have been captured, no one is sure what to do with them.
I talked to several representatives from privacy, civil rights, and progressive advocacy groups working on body cameras. Even among these often allied groups, there’s little consensus about the kind of policies that should exist around releasing footage.