It’s the New Year, which means it’s time to toss out the old and bring in the new. And for many people that means ditching an old cell phone for a brighter, better model.

But what do you do with that old clunker?  If you’re like Mark Hermann, a sales account executive in Los Angeles, you probably toss the phone into the trash and forget about it.

"I've thrown away several phones," said Hermann, "I always thought, who would want a phone that's outdated?"

Hermann wasn't aware that many groups have started programs to recycle or reuse old cell phones to help charities and protect the environment.

There are more than 153 million cell phone users in the U.S., and because phones have a relatively short life — averaging 18 months to two years — there are many retired phones not being put to good use, said Travis Larson, spokesman for the Cellular Telecommunications & Internet Association (search).

Larson believes that unlike Hermann, "People don't tend to throw away their phones, but are storing them away." 

In a Wireless Week reader poll, 62 percent of people said they store their old cell phones in drawers rather than recycling them. But with programs like Charitable Recycling, Collective Good, Verizon Wireless HopeLine and the CTIA's Wireless Foundation, cell phones can have a life beyond their first owner.

"Many people are out there asking, what do I do with my old phone," said David Diggs, executive director of the Wireless Foundation (search). "We hope we're the answer to this."

Wireless Foundation's Call to Protect program collects old, refurbished phones for victims of domestic violence who use the phones in an emergency. Since 1996, 1.6 million phones were collected for the project, which exceeded the organization’s expectations and its need, according to Diggs.

"Initially we wanted to get the phones to the domestic violence shelters, but the program has been so successful in collecting phones that we were able to raise funds for the cause from the sale of refurbished phones," said Diggs.

In fact in October 2003, four of the nation's leading domestic violence service and prevention groups were awarded a $1.7 million grant for the collection of phones.

If there's no need for refurbished phones, the donated cell phones will be resold for profits to be given to charity. Often, phones are resold in developing countries that lack landlines or where the cost of a new phone is prohibitive. And phones that are obsolete are recycled for the re-useable parts and then disposed of according to environmental safety guidelines, said Beth Morawski of the Charitable Recycling Program (search). 

"We have a regulatory compliance partner who guarantees that all of the companies we use to recycle are using the highest environmental standards," said Morawski, who added that plastics, copper, gold, lead, zinc, nickel and iron are recovered from recycled phones.

However, some environmental advocates believe the programs should do more to promote their efforts.

"I can't tell you how many calls I get each week asking what people can do with their old phones," said Eric Most, program director of the solid waste management program for Inform, a nonprofit environmental research group.

In a study Most authored on reuse and recycling programs, he found that since 1999, less than 1 percent of retired cell phones have been recovered by the phone collection programs.

Most said he’d also like to see more effort by cell phone manufacturers to redesign phones to be more recyclable by reducing the amount of waste and toxic substances in them. Inform estimates that by 2005, over 100 million cell phones will be retired annually in the U.S. Most is concerned that too many of those phones will end up in landfills and incinerators releasing hazardous elements into the environment.

"Even though cell phones are small, we want to make sure phones aren't thrown in the trash," said Most, adding that it's the potential of large quantities of phones being trashed that poses the biggest threat.

Another incentive for recycling phones is that in several states — Florida, Iowa, Maine, Maryland, Minnesota, New Jersey and Vermont — it's illegal to dispose of cell phone batteries made with nickel cadmium (search) (Ni-Cd) in the trash, according to Theresa Hall of the Rechargeable Battery Recycling Corporation (search).  Most cell phone batteries made in the 1980s were made with Ni-Cd, but today they're made with less toxic lithium ion batteries.

For Diggs the solution is simple, "Don't waste the good use of a phone. Giving us your old phone not only helps the environment, but also helps your community."

Hermann, after learning about the recycling programs, said that next time he's ready for a new phone, he'll "absolutely" recycle the old one.

"Why not help someone out rather than throwing it away," he said.