$ellPhone wins Rep. Alan Lowenthal’s 2021 Congressional App Challenge in California’s 47th District

Rep. Alan Lowenthal has named Joshua Lou from Oxford Academy as the winner of the 2021 Congressional App Challenge in California’s 47th District.


When asked what inspired the creation of $ellPhone, the student said, “The long-awaited Tokyo 2020 Olympics finally arrived this past summer. For the first time in Olympic history, all 5,000 Tokyo Olympic medals were made out of recycled e-waste, especially obsolete cell phones. This inspired me to raise public awareness and provide an innovative solution to reuse, recycle, and repurpose used cell phones by creating this mobile app.

E-waste has become the world’s fastest-growing waste stream with a record 54 million metric tons of e-waste generated worldwide in 2019. However, it is the most neglected form of waste. A whopping 97% of Americans own at least one cell phone, but only 15% of these phones are collected for reuse and recycling. When people, including myself, look into their drawers or storage rooms, they will probably see many used phones just laying around and collecting dust. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that one billion used mobile phones are stockpiled in U.S. households, resulting in a great loss of valuable materials such as gold and silver. On the other hand, many old phones are discarded in the trash, ending up in landfills and causing serious damage to our health and environment.

Compelled by the pressing issue, I conducted a thorough literature review of over 30 peer-reviewed research articles to understand the psychological and social determinants of consumers’ behaviors for phone recycling and research recommendations on intervention strategies. There are three root causes for the extremely low collection rate of cell phones. First, many people are unaware of the resource sustainability and environmental and health safety issues with used phones. Secondly, even with certain environmental awareness, they do not know where and how to recycle and repurpose their old phones. Thirdly, the “inconvenience” and time and effort costs of recycling kept many cell phone owners from taking action.

Inspired by research-informed intervention strategies, I felt that I could create an app to use technology to implement these strategies, not only engaging people to learn more about the why and how-tos of phone recycling, but also devising a practical and convenient solution that people could find personally beneficial.”

The 2021 Congressional App Challenge yielded 2,101 fully functioning apps. After eighteen months of disruptions to educational cadences for students everywhere, the Congressional App Challenge came roaring back with 7,174 students registering for this year’s competition. All told, 340 Members of Congress hosted Congressional App Challenges in their districts across 50 states, Puerto Rico, Guam, the Mariana Islands, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and Washington, D.C.

The Congressional App Challenge is an official initiative of the U.S. House of Representatives, where Members of Congress host contests in their districts for middle school and high school students, encouraging them to learn to code and inspiring them to pursue careers in computer science. Each participating Member of Congress selects a winning app from their district, and each winning team is invited to showcase their winning app to Congress during our annual #HouseOfCode festival. The program is a public-private partnership made possible through funding from Omidyar Network, AWS, theCoderSchool, Facebook, Replit, Accenture, and others.

The 2022 Congressional App Challenge will launch in June of 2022, and eligible students can pre-register for the competition now.