The Best Ways to Recycle Your Old Electronic Devices
Limit e-waste by repurposing or reselling computers, phones, tablets, TVs
More electronic waste is the obvious downside to our increased reliance on technology and the rate at which we replace our gear.
Between 2014 and 2019, the volume of global e-waste grew by 21 percent, according to a report from the United Nations-supported Global E-waste Statistics Partnership. In 2019 alone, we threw away an estimated 53.6 million metric tons of e-waste worldwide, a pace that will lead to nearly 75 million metric tons of e-waste a year by 2030.
Among all countries, the U.S. is second only to China in the amount of electronic waste generated. We tossed nearly 7 million metric tons of old computers, LED light bulbs, phones, tablets and TVs among the items considered e-waste in 2019, the most recent figures available.
What is e-waste?
Though we think of e-waste as old electronics, the problem is actually larger and encompasses most electrical equipment, which increasingly includes electronic parts, according to the Global E-Waste Statistics Partnership.
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, but also including 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 televisions
• Small appliances, including electric tools, electronic toys, medical devices, microwaves, vacuum cleaners and video cameras
But the pandemic has accelerated our demand for technology: more laptops to work and attend school from home; upgrades of our smartphones to 5G models to share photos and video more quickly; and better home entertainment systems, such as smart televisions and video game systems, to amuse ourselves during lockdowns.
Toxins in electronics
You don’t need to be an environmental activist to appreciate the problem — actually a few problems:
Toxic waste. Many consumer electronics contain chemicals such as beryllium, brominated flame retardants (BFRs), cadmium, mercury and polyvinyl chloride (PVC) that can poison our 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.
More mining. As we increase our demand for electronics without recycling most of the old ones, we must look for new sources of the raw materials needed to make new products. For example, recovering aluminum from recycled electronics uses 90 percent less energy than mining fresh aluminum, the Ontario-based Electronic Products Recycling Association says.
What’s more, for every 1 million mobile phones that are recycled, 35,274 pounds of copper, 772 pounds of silver, 75 pounds of gold, and 33 pounds of palladium can be recovered, according to a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) study.
How to properly dispose of your technology
Repurposing items is always best, whether it's using drawers from an old dresser as a raised garden bed in the backyard or handing down a laptop to a family member, friend, church group, community center or school.
But you can make money from some of your old tech. Depending on what year it’s from and the condition it’s in, e-commerce sites will resell your devices. If you want to find a buyer yourself, you can post it on Craigslist, eBay, or Facebook Marketplace.
Some services, such as Decluttr, ecoATM, Gazelle, or MPB.com, will purchase a product from you and find a buyer. Check the websites to see what each company will offer for your device — or whether they're interested in buying it.
If you can’t reuse, regift or resell your electronics, you should recycle properly. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency lists several ways. State agencies and local programs may give you even more options. Check the websites to see what each service will offer for your device — or even if they're interested in buying 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 of time to confirm that your local store will accept e-waste and what types of products they will recycle.
Options abound for phones, small devices
Cellphone Bank of Ocala, Florida, and Secure the Call of Takoma Park, Maryland, are among organizations that erase data from old cellphones — though you should do that 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.
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. Local charities also may participate in such programs.
Mobile phone service providers often will accept old cellphones to recycle and may offer you a credit toward purchase of a new model.
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Several services allow you to type in your zip code to see locations near you where electronic waste can be dropped off:
• Call2Recycle will show you drop-off locations for old 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.
• Earth911 goes beyond electronic devices to tell you where to drop off some types of batteries, compact fluorescent light bulbs and plastic bags.
But before you recycle your aging or broken tech with an organization, do some research about what they do with it. Some companies may resell your devices, perhaps shipped overseas, so it’s especially important to properly clean your data from old devices before it leaves your hands.
Whether you’re recycling or donating a smartphone, tablet, laptop or desktop, you need to properly delete your personal information, but let’s cover the basics first.
Remove all of your data
The good news is you can protect your privacy — even if you’re not too tech savvy. It just takes a couple of proactive steps.
Both iOS and Android smartphones and tablets support encryption, so performing a factory reset should be fine. On an iPhone, it's in Settings | General | Transfer or Reset iPhone | Erase All Content and Settings.
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 card, 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.
On a personal computers, both desktop and laptop, you can use free downloadable software to properly erase your hard drive. Sometimes referred to as “shredding” a drive, free tools such 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 this process can take awhile.
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 you don’t want to risk injuring yourself. Instead, research local recycling organizations that destroy the tech you bring them.
Or you can remove the old hard drive and, with the aid of an inexpensive enclosure kit, turn it into an external drive that can be plugged into your existing PC, Mac or Chromebook.
Marc Saltzman is a contributing writer who covers personal technology. His work also appears in USA Today and other national publications. He hosts the podcast series Tech It Out and is the author of several books, including Apple Watch for Dummies.