Sprint is not the biggest cell phone company, but it is the most environmentally-friendly by most accounts. Sprint ranked No. 3 of all US companies in Newsweek’s annual Green Rankings, well ahead of rivals AT&T (28) and Verizon Communication (54). It offered in-store recycling of mobile devices before AT&T or Verizon. And when an independent research firm, Compass Intelligence, compared the recycling and reuse programs of the major carriers, Sprint came out on top. What’s more, Sprint’s CEO, Dan Hesse, personally has led the company’s efforts, as I learned when we met a couple of years ago. [See my 2010 blogpost, CEO Dan Hesse: Sprinting towards sustainability.]

So I was puzzled to see a recent AT&T press release with the headline: AT&T Customers Break World Record for Recycling Wireless Devices. The release said:

By recycling 50,942 devices during a one-week period, AT&T* customers broke the world record for collecting the most wireless devices in a week as certified by Guinness World Records.

It also noted AT&T collected about three million cell phones for reuse and recycling in 2011. The release got a lot of attention, and was widely and uncritically covered–here at the Mother Nature Network, here at Treehugger and here at Environmental Leader.

There’s just one problem.

This so-called world record is all but meaningless. Sprint almost surely recycles a lot more cell phones than AT&T, although direct comparisons are impossible.

Consider: AT&T says it collected 3 million cell phones for reuse and recycling in 2011. Sprint says it collected 11 million in 2011–an average of more than 200,000 a week, easily topping AT&T’s so-called record.

So what’s going on here? A few things, some good, some not-so-good.

What’s good is that the mobile carriers are competing around being “green.” As Roman Smith, director of sustainability operations for AT&T, told me in an email:

As a way to engage with consumers around wireless recycling, we decided to work with the Guinness World Record team to break the  previously-held record for cell phone recycling…. Carriers across the industry should challenge each other to break this record time and time again.

When companies — Sprint and AT&T, FedEx and UPS, Dell and HP–compete around sustainability, their performance improves.

What’s not so good is the attention paid to AT&T’s so-called record. Sprint understandably challenged the claim, to a blogger for Waste & Recycling News. The Guinness World Record people — who, it turns out,  charge $7,000 to $15,000, plus expenses, to adjudicate and certify records — then reached out to Sprint, inviting the company to try to break the record.

“What we believe here is that part of the fun of record-breaking is that records are made to be broken!” said Amanda Mochan, business development manager for Guinness World Record North America, in an email to Sprint. Well, sure they do–that’s how Guinness makes its money.

Is this any way to measure sustainability? Of course not.

Part of the confusion because AT&T’s 3 million and Sprint’s 11 million accounting of collected in 2011 don’t measure the same thing. AT&T includes only handheld wireless devices, an industry guideline set by CTIA, the wireless trade association. Sprint’s number includes tablets, hot spots and mobile broadband cards, but not enough to be meaningful–about 2% of everything collected, a spokesman assured me. AT&T also doesn’t include devices returned as part of its “buyer’s remorse program,” where customers bring back an almost-new phone for whatever reason, while Sprint does include its “Satisfaction Guarantee returns and exchanges.” Still, Sprint’s lead is so big that it seems fair to conclude  that the smaller carrier is No. 1 when it comes to recycling–and that AT&T’s record was no such thing.

Verizon, by the way, is even more vague in its reporting, and did not respond to my email seeking clarification.

What’s needed here are common metrics and better transparency, as well a concept called sustainability context. Sustainability context that seeks to put corporate claims in the context of what the planet’s limits are when itcomes to greenhouse gas reductions, water usage and the like.

It’s hard to know what the context should be for cell phone recycling but Sprint has the boldest goal–it says it wants to collect nine phones for reuse and recycling for every 10 it puts into the market by 2017. This year’s collection rate is better than 40%, according to Fared Adib, senior vice president of product development and reverse logistics at Sprint. He said the Spring program makes economic sense because many of the phones that come in are in excellent condition; they refurbished and resold to customers, which saves Sprint the expense of buying new phones. Reusing an old phone is, of course, environmentally preferable to making a new one. And the ways to drive recycling are simple. Asking people to bring back their current phone–and paying for it, as all the carriers do–has “become a standard part of the sales process–just like we ask them if they want to buy accessories or insurance,” Fared said. Eventually, trading in a phone should become as automatic as trading in a car when you buy a new one.

The problem isn’t trivial. Last year, manufacturers produced more than 1.68 billion wireless phones worldwide. In the United States alone, it’s estimated that fewer than 10 percent of discarded mobile phones will be recycled. Compass Intelligence estimates that by the end of this year there will be 324 million idle devices floating around in the US–about one for every American!

I asked Compass’s Kate Pearce, who follows the issue closely, for her thoughts. By email, she repled:

The carriers understand that not only is device recycling good from an environmental angle, but that extending the device lifecycle is a boost to their bottom line. Carriers can drive a paradigm shift, moving from the so-called “throw away” electronics society to one where end users (and the industry) are better e-stewards…They all should strive to change purchase decisions (i.e.,  whether to buy gently-used devices) and ensure that mobile device recycling is not an afterthought for the end user but the norm in the industry.

Now there’s a good idea. Don’t just encourage people to trade in their “old” phone. Ask them whether they really need a new one.