It began three years ago over a morning breakfast, with two Massachusetts kids hoping to help one soldier stationed in Iraq pay for a whopping cell phone bill.
Today, the Cell Phones for Soldiers program has raised more than $1 million and doled out more than 75,000 phone cards to soldiers overseas and their families back home.
The program received a major boost last week with AT&T Inc. launching a cell phone-recycling program that essentially will turn old, used devices into even more phone cards.
AT&T-owned wireless stores nationwide — including those at 1701 Rollins Way and 300 10th St. in Columbus — are accepting old cell phones that ultimately will end up at a recycling plant. The recycler will pay Cell Phones for Soldiers for the discarded equipment, with proceeds earmarked for more phone card purchases.
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"They have been very supportive," Gail Bergquist said of AT&T on Friday. "They have donated 30,000 prepaid phone cards, and are giving us a reduced rate now on the purchase phone cards, which is fabulous."
Bergquist is the mother of Brittany and Robbie, now 16 and 15, respectively, who saw a TV interview in 2004 in which a father was discussing how his deployed son had racked up nearly $8,000 in cell phone bills communicating with loved ones here in the U.S.
At the time, Bergquist had two nephews serving in the military — one headed for duty in Baghdad, the other attending officer's training for eventual deployment to Kosovo.
The Bergquist siblings remarked to their mother and father, Bob, both teachers in Norwell, Mass., that they wanted to help the soldier on TV and their family members in uniform. They ran upstairs and grabbed their piggybanks: $14 was quickly raised. Kids at school donated snack money. There were car washes and bake sales. A bank donated $500.
also is donating 10,000 more phone cards directly to troops stationed in Iraq, Kuwait, Afghanistan and other overseas areas over the coming weeks. The company's goal for 2007 is to donate 50,000 prepaid cards valued at more than $450,000.
"The launch of our national recycling program that supports Cell Phones for Soldiers gives us the chance to demonstrate our commitment to military families all across America," Bob Fox, director of sales for AT&T's wireless operation in south Georgia, said in a statement. "AT&T is proud to do what we can to help keep military families connected."
AT&T said it has donated nearly $8 million in free prepaid phone cards to those in uniform since 2000, on top of nearly $6 million in grants that support troops and related nonprofits. The company has 70 U.S. military calling centers scattered through the Mideast.
AT&T spokeswoman Dawn Benton said the recycling effort with Cell Phones for Soldiers is a good match, blending patriotism with environmentally friendly ways of ditching old equipment.
"We recycle year-round anyway," she said. "Then we do a lot with the military. So this is a good way to combine something that we're passionate about, which is helping the military, and combining what we have done in terms of recycling."
Gold, toxins in phones
From a corporate standpoint, the program works well in light of the fact that AT&T's partnership with Apple Inc. and its new iPhone is expected to generate plenty of discarded cell phones, BlackBerrys and iPods. Apple officials have predicted 10 million of the iPhones — which blend voice calls, Internet, photos and music — will be sold over the next 18 months.
David Kutoff sees this as a teachable moment.
He’s president and CEO of Materials Processing Corp. in Eagan, Minn., which has collected electronic waste, or e-waste, for nearly 25 years.
"If I throw my one-pound cell phone in the garbage buried in a plastic bag, who’s going to notice? It’s not like a 25-inch TV," said Kutoff, 29, who bought the business in January with partner Todd Schachtman, 33.
"But if everyone recycles their phones, close to 1.5 million pounds of cell phones won’t wind up in the garbage can," he said. "It’s the difference between everybody saying, ‘Who cares?’ and everyone saying, ‘We can do our part.’ It’s all about education."
Already the average American has three to five cell phones lying around, which stacks up to a nationwide total of 750 million unused devices just lying dormant.
Unfortunately, a lot of those phones go directly from the dresser drawer into the trash can. About 130 million a year meet that fate, according to the Environmental Protection Agency — even though the phones are filled with all sorts of valuable metals, including gold.
Many cell phones also are loaded with hazardous materials like cadmium, arsenic, copper and lead — stuff you don’t want leeching out of landfills or incinerated in garbage burners.