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The Best Ways to Recycle Your Old Electronic Devices

Limit e-waste by repurposing or reselling computers, phones, tablets, TVs

spinner image two smartphones in front of a recycling bin
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The downside of reliance on technology is electronic waste.

The amount of e-waste generated in the United States grew to more than 46 pounds per person in 2019, double the figures from 2015, according to the United Nations-supported Global E-waste Statistics Partnership. Worldwide, electronic waste decreased 6 percent to 8 percent in early 2020 as people held on to their old stuff when pandemic-era supply chain problems kept them from replacing their gear.

But high-income countries such as the U.S. quickly made up for lost ground when they could: more laptops to attend school and work from home; 5G smartphones to share photos and video more quickly; and better home entertainment systems, such as smart televisions and video game systems.

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The partnership’s 2020 report predicts more than 80 million tons of electronic waste a year by 2030. Among all countries, the U.S. is second only to China in the amount of e-waste generated.

Small amounts of toxins in electronics multiply into big mess

You don’t need to be an environmental activist to appreciate the problem, actually several problems.

What is e-waste?

Though we think of e-waste as old electronics, the problem encompasses most electrical equipment, which increasingly includes electronic parts.

Calculators, cellphones, GPS devices, home printers, personal computers and routers make up just one of six categories of electronic waste that the United Nations and manufacturers say should be recycled more. The others:

Appliances and other equipment, such as dishwashers, dryers, stoves and washing machines, plus copiers, large printers and photovoltaic panels.

Heating and cooling equipment, including air conditioners, freezers, heat pumps and refrigerators.

Light bulbs, such as fluorescent, high-intensity discharge and light-emitting diode lamps.

Monitors, including e-readers, laptops, notebooks, tablets and TVs.

Small appliances, including electric tools, electronic toys, medical devices, microwaves, vacuum cleaners and video cameras.

Toxic waste. Many consumer electronics contain chemicals such as beryllium, brominated flame retardants (BFRs), cadmium, mercury and polyvinyl chloride (PVC) that can poison soil and water. An old television set or cathode ray tube monitor you’re finally getting rid of contains 4 to 8 pounds of lead, a hazardous neurotoxin that shouldn’t go into a landfill with household waste.

Air pollution. Leaks of Freon and other substances from discarded refrigerators and air conditioners contribute to global greenhouse gas emissions.

Mining. As demand increases for electronics, without recycling most of the old ones, new sources of raw materials are needed to make new products. Recovering aluminum from recycled electronics uses 90 percent less energy than mining fresh aluminum, the Ontario-based Electronic Products Recycling Association says.

For every 1 million cellphones recycled, 35,274 pounds of copper, 772 pounds of silver, 75 pounds of gold and 33 pounds of palladium can be recovered, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), using information in a U.S. Geological Survey report from 2006.

As many as 7 in 10 smartphones aren’t recycled even though people retire them every 2½ years on average, according to 2023 University of California San Diego research. Some sit in junk drawers, others end up in landfills, but even those that are recycled may get shipped overseas to be pulled apart.

How to properly dispose of your technology

Give it away. Repurposing items is always best, whether using drawers from an old dresser as a backyard raised garden bed or handing down a laptop to a family member, friend, church group, community center or school.

Sell it yourself. You can make money from some of your old tech. Depending on your device’s age and condition, e-commerce sites will resell it. If you want to find a buyer yourself, post it on Craigslist, eBay or Facebook Marketplace.

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Trade it in. Some services, such as Decluttr, ecoATM, Gazelle and, will purchase a product from you and find a buyer. Check the websites to see whether any of these services are interested in buying your device and, if so, what they will offer for it.

Recycle it. The U.S. EPA lists several ways to do so. State agencies and local programs may give you more options. Check the websites to see what each service will offer for your device or if they want it.

The EPA site lists options for disposing of larger devices such as computers and printers, including programs from big-box retailers such as Best Buy and Staples. Be sure to call ahead to confirm that your local store will accept e-waste and what types of products it will recycle.

spinner image electronics recycling bins
In France, this set of receptacles for electronic waste has separate bins so users can sort their computer accessories, cellphones, and alkaline and rechargeable batteries for recycling.
Getty Images

Options abound for phones, small devices

New life for cellphones. 911 Cell Phone Bank of Ocala, Florida, and Secure the Call of Takoma Park, Maryland, are among the organizations that erase data from old mobile phones — though you should erase it yourself before donating — and give the phones to law enforcement and victims’ services agencies for reuse. Those agencies then give the phones to people who might need to make a 911 call, which doesn’t require purchase of a cellphone plan.

Recycling for charity. Nonprofit groups, such as Alpharetta, Georgia–based Cellphones for Soldiers; Denver-based National Coalition Against Domestic Violence; and St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital and the Wounded Warrior Project, which receive money through SecondWave Recycling based in the Seattle area, can benefit when you mail in cellphones and sometimes other small devices for recycling. Charities near you also may participate in such programs.

Incentives for you. Some cellphone carriers accept old phones to recycle and may offer you a credit toward purchase of a new model. Amazon also offers gift cards for its small consumer electronics and others, including Amazon items not in working condition, plus discounts on its devices.

Locations in your area. Several services allow you to type in your zip code to see places nearby where you can give away your old electronics:

  • Call2Recycle shows you drop-off locations for cellphones, e-bike batteries, rechargeable batteries and single-use batteries.
  • The Consumer Technology Association’s recycle electronics map also lists the devices accepted at locations in its results.
  • Goodwill donation centers partner with computer manufacturer Dell to refurbish or recycle any brand of computer and accessories including monitors, printers and scanners in about half of the thrift stores nationwide.
  • Earth911 goes beyond electronic devices to tell you where to drop off some types of batteries, halogen light bulbs and refrigerators.
  • uBreakiFix stores in more than 45 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico are drop-off locations for Amazon’s small consumer electronics recycling program.

But before you recycle your aging or broken tech, research what happens to it. Some companies resell your devices, so it’s especially important to properly clear your data before any item leaves your hands.

Video: Video: How to Scrub Personal Information From Your Phone

Remove all your data

You can protect your privacy — even if you’re not too tech savvy. It just takes a couple of steps.

Smartphones. Both iOS and Android smartphones and tablets support encryption, so performing a factory reset will keep your information from being decoded. On an iPhone, it’s in Settings ⚙️ | General | Transfer or Reset iPhone | Erase All Content | Settings.

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Remember, lots of manufacturers make Android phones, so instructions to erase the data will vary. But pulling up your Settings ⚙️ app and searching for factory reset, or reset if the first phrase doesn’t show any results, should start you on the process.

Also remove your subscriber identity module, better known as a SIM card, from any phone you want to recycle, and check an Android phone to remove any microSD memory cards you may have added. If your phone has an eSIM, the digital version of a SIM card, check with your phone’s manufacturer on how to erase your data on it.

Personal computers. On both desktops and laptops, you can use free downloadable software to properly erase your hard drive, sometimes referred to as “shredding” a drive. Free tools such as CBL Data Shredder and Eraser can comb through every sector to clear all your data.

They jumble the zeros and ones that make up the memory to make it inaccessible to anyone who attempts to retrieve information. Be aware that this process can take a while.

If a computer won’t turn on to use shredding software, some people physically destroy hard drives before recycling by taking a drill or hammer to it. But don’t risk injury. Instead, research local recycling organizations that destroy the tech you bring them.

Or keep the hard disk and lose the computer. If your old hard drive is undamaged, turn it into an external drive with the aid of an inexpensive enclosure kit. It then can be plugged into your new PC, Mac or Chromebook.

This story, originally published April 18, 2022, was updated to add more recent studies and links.

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