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Smashing Your Cellphone to Preserve Privacy Makes It Really Hard to Recycle

Finding a balance between privacy concerns and environmental costs when deciding how to get rid of your shitty old phone.
Image: Shutterstock

You probably have an old cell phone sitting in a drawer somewhere that you want to get rid of. But what should you do with it

Sell it? Trash it? Recycle it? Smash it to bits? Just leave it there forever?

According to the Canadian Wireless Telecommunications Association, which advocates on behalf of the industry, 62 per cent of Canadians have an average of 2.1 phones that they're not using. That equals more than 47 million unused cell phones collecting dust. But selling your old phone comes with risks that it will be compromised.


A phone, after all, meticulously documents your life. And even if you encrypt it and then clear it via a factory reset, the best and worst of your personal data—like messages, dick pics, and location history—can still be retrieved from the device, according to Ontario-based private investigator Chris Williams, who compares a hard drive to a whiteboard.
"You're in university… the prof cleans off the whiteboard, and if you look carefully, you can still see yesterday's lesson," Williams said. "There is really no way to wipe a phone. The data is still there but the phone loses the ability to actually find it."

But third-party software still can.

Williams, who's the CEO of Canadian Private Investigation Services, includes cell phone forensics as part of his services. Once, while investigating a case of internal corporate espionage, he was able to extract damning evidence from an encrypted smartphone that had been wiped. And the commercial tools at his disposal pale in comparison to those employed by organizations like the FBI and NSA, according to Williams.

"The only true way to get rid of that information is physical destruction," he added. "Burn it. Kill it with fire."

Ann Cavoukian, executive director of Ryerson University's Privacy and Big Data Institute and the former Information and Privacy Commissioner of Ontario, also opts for destruction.

"It's just so very revealing in terms of the personal information it contains about you," she said of today's phones. "Privacy is highly contextual in terms of how important the information is relating to your activities. I would take a hammer to it."


While taking a blowtorch or a mallet to your old phone might be the best way to protect your personal data, such an approach comes with an environmental cost. Phones contain small amounts of hazardous materials like mercury, lead and cadmium. Destroying an old phone and trashing it so that it spends a near-eternity in a landfill might not seem like a big deal, but if you multiply that by the millions of devices sitting unused in the country, that equals a lot of toxic substances potentially leaching into soil and groundwater.

A phone, for example, contains roughly two grams of mercury. Our 47 million unused phones thus equals 94 tonnes of the toxic element.

"One of the most secure ways to deal with end-of-life electronics is put [phones] into the approved recycling track," explained Alan Nursall, who reports on science for Daily Planet and is the CEO of Edmonton's Telus World of Science.

The Electronic Products Recycling Association (EPRA) is an industry-led not-for-profit that oversees a network of end-of-life electronics recycling facilities across Canada. The EPRA, which keeps an average of of 100,000 metric tonnes of old electronics out of landfills each year, is responsible for making sure Canada's electronics recyclers meet strict provincial security, safety and environmental guidelines. At least 80 per cent of a phone, the EPRA states, can be recycled and reused—something that becomes a lot more difficult when you destroy it.


"There's a lot of valuable material in end of life electronics," Cliff Hacking, the EPRA's president and CEO said. "You don't want to waste that."

According to the Environmental Protection Agency in the US, for every million cell phones that are recycled, more than 15,000 kg of copper, 350 kg of silver, 34 kg of gold, and 15 kg of palladium (a toxic but precious metal that's used to make electrical contacts) is recovered. Recycling such materials from old electronics, the EPRA states, is ten times more efficient than mining them. These recovered materials, as well as other metals, plastics and glass, are then put back into the manufacturing supply chain to make new products, while hazardous materials are safely disposed of. If it's working, a phone dropped off at an EPRA-approved recycler will never be refurbished, resold or illegally exported, Hacking said.

"There are organizations, I'd call them rogue organizations, that operate in that fashion," he said. "As an industry, we want to make sure there is every precaution taken to safeguard against these kinds of risks."

The EPRA recovered 649,503 wireless devices in Canada in 2016. 7 million have been recycled through the EPRA since 2005.

"We want people to reuse them until they come to the end of their natural life," Hacking said. "But when they hit that stage, we want them turned right back into metals and plastics and materials that can be reused in the manufacturing process, and that's our mandate."

Do your privacy concerns outweigh your environmental ones? That's an equation only you can solve.

Find your flip phone drop off location here .

Presented by Recycle My Electronics