Burner Phones
November 28, 2016 9:00 PM   Subscribe

Cheap and disposable cell phones, what TV detective shows love to call "burner phones" are always shown being thown away in trash cans. But if they are only used once, what happens to them? They all have to have the symbol of a trashcan with an X through it on the back cover to show they're capable of being environmentally recycled.

So, does somebody fish them out of the garbage around the country and resell them, mine them for rare earth metals, let them stay buried at the bottom of the garbage pile, what? Can so many practically new, working phones be wasted or doesn't it matter?
posted by CollectiveMind to Technology (9 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I don't think someone who is using a burner phone is particularly concerned about the environmental impact of throwing it away.

Some municipalities have single-stream recycling and these might fish the phone out of the waste stream and recycle it properly. But mostly it's just going to go in the dump.
posted by kindall at 9:03 PM on November 28, 2016 [9 favorites]

If they are thrown into a public bin someone might fish them out as they have some marginal value (seen in the TV Show The Wire where Bubbles collects burners out of the gutter for resale). Otherwise they will get buried or incinerated depending on where the local waste stream ends up. There isn't anyone sifting the garbage (in the US/Canada anyways) at the collection point.
posted by Mitheral at 9:16 PM on November 28, 2016 [2 favorites]

When burner phones are thrown in the trash on detective shows, it's almost always because they're being used in criminal activity--using a burner and tossing it in a random public garbage can makes it all but impossible to trace. I once had a disposable phone when I lived out of state for two months and needed a local number--I recycled it when I was finished.
posted by epj at 9:46 PM on November 28, 2016 [4 favorites]

I'm a stripper with a burner phone. Granted, I'm not using it for anything illegal, but for whatever it might be worth, here is my experience with burners — usually cheap flip-phones that you can add minutes to using cards purchased in cash at your average pharmacy — as they relate to the sex industry.

Most people don't throw burners away after a single use. If you're a regular "low-level" drug dealer or sex worker, you're using a burner phone to cultivate a customer base — customers that have to be able to get in touch with you somehow if they're going to continue giving you money. You have a burner phone so that people have a way to get in touch with you that isn't connected to your name in any official databases. I always strongly advise new girls to get a burner phone.

So unless you're committing a serious crime with a big financial payoff and an equally big jail sentence, it doesn't make financial sense to throw away your phone after every transaction. You throw it away if you're worried that the cops are going to be searching your stuff. (Or in the case of my line of work, you're being harassed, your number was posted online without your consent, you're looking to "start over," etc.)

These phones are cheap but not so cheap that most people are going to be getting new ones every week. I dropped mine on the dressing room floor recently, splitting it into three pieces. I was frustrated. I had over two hundred dollars in minutes on the phone, and no idea how to go about transferring the number to a new phone without getting the phone company involved, which I don't want to do. (Luckily, my coworkers put it back together for me, because it turns out that the cheap burner flip-phone is more resilient than the screen of my expensive regular-use smartphone.)

Yes, on the battery, which I had never looked at until this MeFi question, there is a little icon of a trashcan with an "x" through it. Still, generally speaking, if someone is done with a burner phone, it goes in the trash. (Not endorsing this, but yeah, that's what happens.) The benefits of recycling are either not considered or deemed not worth it due to the risk to yourself and/or your customers. I'm not sure what happens to it from there.
posted by Peppermint Snowflake at 11:11 PM on November 28, 2016 [27 favorites]

For the most part you really don't need to throw away the phone. Sure for the most part the IMEI can uniquely identify the phone, however if you buy it from a store without functional video cams in cash far away from your home are you are most likely safe.

If you follow decent opsec rules i.e. dont go overboard (the slideshow does) all you really need to do is destroy the sim card, which you also want to buy in cash from stores in strip malls that have a lot of camera most/all of which will be non-functional (it costs quite a bit of money to store all that video) and only use/activate the sim card after a few weeks.

In which case, its not particularly bad because although it does contain some rare earth materials the percentages are not high enough to warrant concern if you just put it in (some else') recycle bin or even just throw it away. That way you get most of the security part without most of the environmental impact.

PS: always buy Nokia bricks. They are practically indestructible.

PPS: If you are really concerned about opsec you might want to reconsider your environmental impact concerns.
posted by ding-dong at 11:46 PM on November 28, 2016

No one goes through any trash for items that don't belong there.
posted by humboldt32 at 8:40 AM on November 29, 2016

No one goes through any trash for items that don't belong there.

Tell that to the scrappers who visit my alley the night before trash pickup.
posted by hwyengr at 8:52 AM on November 29, 2016 [2 favorites]

humboldt32: "No one goes through any trash for items that don't belong there."

Public trash bins that are busy enough to be emptied regularly are also visited regularly by people looking for deposit items (if deposits are charged in your area). It's enough of a thing around here that the city bins have side bins for bottles and cans.
posted by Mitheral at 2:34 PM on November 29, 2016

What I meant was no one is in charge of regulating what goes in the trash, for the most part. The OP question asks if someone goes around fishing out burner phones because they were only used once, because they have a recycle only symbol on them, assumes that tons and tons of electronics are not just casually tossed out. My answer was no, no one does that. I'm not so dim as to not understand dumpster diving.
posted by humboldt32 at 9:42 AM on November 30, 2016

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