How to Recycle Old Cellphones—and 4 Things to Do First
Don't toss your old device in the trash! Cellphone recycling is easy and better for the environment.
When you’re ready to upgrade your cellphone to a shiny high-tech model, it can be confusing to know what to do with your old phone. It’s no wonder that out of the more than a billion smartphones sold around the world each year, millions end up in landfills. But instead of throwing your phone into the trash and creating electronic waste, why not embrace the future of recycling by donating it, trading it in or sending it to a professional facility equipped to handle cellphone recycling?
Currently, the recycling rate for electronics is 38.5% in the United States. That’s a big loss for our environment. But we can learn a few recycling lessons from other countries, some of which have a recycling rate of 43%. One of those lessons: Knowing how to recycle properly is paramount to having a more sustainable future.
Here’s why that matters: Cellphone recycling can reduce fossil fuels, give new life to valuable metals like copper and silver, and reduce the size of landfills. It’s surprisingly easy to learn how to recycle anything, and you don’t need to take a recycling quiz to know that doing so benefits the environment and helps you live a more sustainable lifestyle. Want to recycle old cellphones? All you have to do is take a few steps to ensure that your privacy and personal data are protected, then choose the right recycling option for you.
Why recycle old cellphones?
Recycling offers a way to help mitigate the negative impacts of cellphone production, minimize the number of devices in landfills and stem the release of smartphone-related toxins into the air, soil and water. It can preserve our natural resources while also reducing emissions of harmful greenhouse gases. And the small act of recycling an old device can help ease at least a little of your climate anxiety.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), recycling the more than 100 million cellphones that are thrown away yearly in the United States can provide enough power for 24,000 homes. And for every million cellphones that are recycled, we can recover 35,274 pounds of copper, 772 pounds of silver, 75 pounds of gold and 33 pounds of palladium. Saving resources and reducing energy waste are good reasons to trade in your old phone.
Cellphones and natural resources
Cellphone recycling helps extend the life cycle of products, reducing waste and lessening the environmental impact. Every manufactured item has a big effect on the environment, and it begins with the extraction of raw resources like minerals, metals and water. We have a finite amount of natural resources, so it’s important to use them wisely. And cellphone manufacturing isn’t exactly conserving water or saving energy.
Your cellphone is made from a combination of raw materials that include minerals like copper, gold and palladium. Other elements, like plastic LCD displays, are made from crude oils, and the batteries are made from lithium. Considering that the average life span of a cellphone is 2.5 years, that’s a lot of natural resources extracted and disposed of in a short amount of time.
Then there’s the fact that we use an enormous amount of energy and produce greenhouse gas emissions when extracting these precious resources from the earth. So it’s always better to recycle these resources than to trash them. That way, recycled plastic and other materials can be remanufactured into an array of products.
How recycling reduces toxins
When we throw away our electronics and they end up in landfills, they don’t simply sit there. All the chemicals, including flame-retardants, that are applied to the plastic screens of phones slowly break down. During that process, they leach toxins and gases, such as methane, into the air and surrounding soil and water.
How to recycle old cellphones
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It’s a sad fact that e-waste is one of the planet’s biggest trash problems, but there are ways to mitigate the damage with cellphone recycling. The process is easy and, depending on the method you choose, may even benefit you. But before you start googling “recycle old cellphones near me,” consider your options: trade in your phone, find a drop-off site or donate it.
Trade it in
Start with a call to your cellphone carrier and ask about take-back programs. These allow you to trade in your old phone for a new, upgraded model or a site credit. T-Mobile and Verizon are among the major carriers that offer these programs.
Other manufacturers (such as Apple and Samsung) and stores (such as Best Buy and Staples) offer the same. The EPA also offers a handy list of stores, cellphone carriers and manufacturers that will sustainably recycle your old phones. You might even be able to recycle your accessories, including earbuds and chargers, with them.
Find a drop-off site
Sometimes older phones are not accepted by a take-back program. Don’t worry. There are other options for getting rid of old phones that benefit the environment. While your device might not have one of those recognizable recycling symbols on its back, you can recycle smartphones.
Jeremy Walters, sustainability ambassador and head of community relations for Republic Services, a recycling company that created the Recycling Simplified guide to allow consumers to find recycling solutions more easily, suggests finding third-party companies that “will buy your older model [phone] and other electronic devices, if they’re in good condition.”
Walters recommends searching Earth911 or Call2Recycle to find an e-waste drop-off site in your neighborhood. You can also order a prepaid box and mail any tech waste to Republic Services, and the company will properly recycle your old electronic devices for you.
“Knowing how to recycle e-waste properly not only keeps toxic and potentially dangerous materials out of the waste stream, it also allows recyclers to harvest valuable materials, like copper, gold, silver, glass and plastics for another use,” he explains.
If you don’t want to recycle old cellphones and they’re not fit for trade-in, you could try to sell your unwanted stuff on a site like Facebook Marketplace. Even better: Consider donating them. It’s a way to recycle while adding value to someone’s life.
Do you have an old phone that is in good working condition? Ask friends, family or those in your local community if anyone is in need of it. Also reach out to local shelters, retirement communities and other organizations that help those in need; they may accept cellphone donations.
There are also other organizations that will refurbish and donate your old technology to at-risk communities. These include World Computer Exchange and the 1Million Project. You can either mail in your phone or find a local drop-off site to ensure that your device gets a second life.
Steps to take to protect your privacy
One of the first steps you’ll want to take when recycling or donating your old phone is to protect your privacy. Even if you purchased one of the most secure phones, you’ll still want to ensure that your data is protected and inaccessible to others.
Back up your data
If you’ve owned your cell phone for a while, there are probably tons of important photos, notes, music and documents on there that you don’t want to lose. So the first step of cellphone recycling is making time to back up. The process will differ by device, but you have the option of backing up your data to a memory card or storing it on the cloud. From there, you can take the necessary steps to wipe your personal information from your device.
Sign out of your accounts
To avoid having anyone gain access to your personal information, ensure that you’re signed out of all your accounts: email, banking, iCloud, online shopping and even social media. Then be sure to delete your saved usernames and passwords. For added protection, change the passwords to your accounts and remove your phone from two-factor authentication.
Unlink and remove your SIM card
Next, ensure that your phone is no longer linked to devices like speakers and printers. After you’re signed out and have unpaired your device, remove your memory or SIM card. You can use it in your new phone.
Reset your phone
Once you’ve taken all these steps, you can rest assured that your data is safe and your phone is ready to be recycled. But don’t stop there. Learn the art of upcycling, how to spot (and avoid) greenwashing and even how to live a (nearly) plastic-free life.
Additional reporting by Chloë Nannestad.
- Jeremy Walters, sustainability ambassador and head of community relations for Republic Services
- Environmental Protection Agency: “Basic Information about Electronics Stewardship”
- Environmental Protection Agency: “The Secret Life of a Smart Phone”
- Statista: “Electronic waste documented to be collected and properly recycled worldwide in 2019, by region”
- Statista: “Average lifespan (replacement cycle length) of smartphones in the United States from 2014 to 2025”
- Access Science: “Cell phones identified as an exposure source of toxic flame retardants”
- Environmental Research: “Occurrence of flame retardants in landfills: A case study in Brazil”