Nextel shutdown will leave 45,000 tons of network junk. How Sprint plans to recycle it

On June 30, Sprint(s s) will shut down its Nextel iDEN network, which will not only leave thousands of Nextel holdouts without service, but also stick the carrier with 100 million lbs. — more than 45,000 metric tons — of cell site junk. Sprint, however, isn’t planning to dump it all into a landfill. It said on Wednesday it would recycle nearly all of it.

While there is a market for old mobile network equipment, iDEN is a dying technology, and Nextel was the world’s largest iDEN carrier. iDEN’s sole manufacturer, Motorola Solutions, still supports the technology and a handful of operators in North and South America, as well as Asia, still use it, but it’s doubtful Sprint would be able to find many buyers.

Sprint logo signSprint spokesman Mike Bonavia said that Sprint would hand over some 30,000 decommissioned base stations to industrial recyclers who will likely dismantle them and sell off the materials. It will do the same with the server racks, antennas, air conditioners, backup batteries and cables linked to those base stations.

In many cases, iDEN sites are co-located with Sprint’s CDMA and LTE networks, and in those instances the peripheral gear and facilities can be reused. At iDEN-only sites, Sprint plans to crush its concrete shelters into composite material for roads and bridges. Though the network will go off the air at the end of the month, Sprint is projecting the recycling effort will last well into 2014.

The recycling and reusing move isn’t just about PR. Sprint can save significant money by reusing its tech, and could make money from recycling, if it sells the scrap to a waste vendor. There are also some state laws that require recycling of certain types of e-waste, particularly substances that could be a hazardous material that could seep into a landfill.

There are still a lot of customers holding onto their Nextel and Boost Mobile iDEN devices. At the end of the first quarter, 1.3 million iDEN connections were still live despite Sprint’s use of both the carrot and the stick to get them to leave. Bonavia told me that since the last quarterly update Sprint has managed to lure more customers away from iDEN and over to Sprint’s CDMA service, and it hopes to bring most of the remainder on board in the next 25 days.

At 12:01 AM on June 30, though, those still using an iDEN phone will suddenly find themselves with a dead device.

Sprint store photo courtesy of Shutterstock user Susan Law Cain