How to Recycle Old Cell Phones

Cell phones are some of the easiest electronics to recycle

Old cell phones piled on top of each other

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The average American cycles through smartphones once every two to 2.5 years. While the lifespans of these ubiquitous gadgets continues to increase, they do contribute to a growing waste problem. Cell phones, like most electrical devices, contain toxic substances (lead, nickel, mercury, and chromium, to name a few) that can harm the environment, wildlife, and even humans if left to degrade in landfills. That's why it's so important to recycle—or, better yet, find a way to reuse—old cell phones.

There may be multiple options for recycling old cell phones, though, so how does one know which is best? Besides sending it back to the manufacturer, given it has a take-back program, you could also leave it at a nearby drop-off location or donate it to a charity. Of course, you should make sure the phone will continue to be used if it's still operational.

Learn all about the most eco-conscious ways to bid farewell to an old cell phone.

Why Recycle Your Cell Phone?

disassembled mobile phone and tools
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Much of a typical cell phone is plastic, including the case and some smaller components. There also tends to be glass in the screen, as well as various metals in the circuits, battery, screen, and elsewhere. Cell phones can contain aluminum, cadmium, chromium, copper, gold, iron, lead, lithium, nickel, silver, tin, and zinc. And these materials cause many problems when thrown in the garbage.

On top of plastic pollution, many of the metals in mobile phones are toxic to humans and other animals, as several have potential carcinogenic effects. In a 2019 study of metals in discarded phones, researchers noted a “statistically significant increase” in the toxic content of smartphones between 2006 and 2015, with the largest carcinogenic risk posed by nickel, lead, and beryllium. Silver, zinc, and copper are also linked to other health risks, the researchers wrote, while copper “dominated ecotoxicity risks” from phones.

When possible, cell phone recycling programs keep devices intact and put them to further use rather than breaking them down and recycling the pieces. The latter method is the safest and healthiest way to dispose of dead or badly damaged phones. Parts can either be sold individually or shredded and added to other recycling. Metal components may be smelted and reconstituted, for example, allowing them to be reused.

How to Recycle Cell Phones

Start by checking with your cellular carrier. Some have buy-back or trade-in programs, or at least offer resources to help you find recycling options. That may include take-back programs from retailers, manufacturers, or other local electronics recycling operations.

Trade-Ins and Take-Back Programs

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency maintains a list of companies that offer cell phone recycling schemes. Major carriers like AT&T, T-Mobile, and Verizon all have trade-in and recycling programs. Manufacturers will also take old cell phones, although some accept only their own products. Apple and Samsung both have trade-in programs for eligible older phones, in some cases offering credit or a gift card in return. Both also provide free mail-in recycling for old devices without trade-in value, as do some other big phone makers like LG and Huawei.

A few big-box electronics and office supply chains have trade-in programs, too, as does the online retail giant Amazon. Some stores serve as free drop-off sites for phone recycling, including Best Buy and Staples. In many cases, you can recycle cell phone accessories here as well.

Drop-Off Sites

Call2Recycle is a national consumer battery recycling program that accepts “all types of cell phones and cell phone batteries regardless of size, make, model, or age." Call2Recycle works with thousands of retail and government partners across the country to establish a network of drop-off sites for recycling batteries and cell phones.

Several thousand more drop-off sites are also available via ecoATM, a company with more than 5,000 automated phone-recycling kiosks around the U.S. These kiosks may buy your old phone from you, depending on the type of phone and its condition, or at least accept it for recycling free of charge. Both Call2Recycle and ecoATM have locator tools on their websites to help you find the closest drop-off location.

Recycling for Charity

Unusable cell phones also can be donated to support various causes. Some zoos in the U.S. and Canada accept cell phones for recycling—including Zoo Atlanta, the Toronto Zoo, and Oakland Zoo—and use the money to fund conservation efforts for endangered great apes. Other groups raise money with cell phone recycling to support soldiers, victims of domestic violence, and health care workers in developing regions, among other causes.

Ways to Reuse Cell Phones

Refurbished cell phones plugged into a computer

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Unless a cell phone no longer works, the best way to get rid of it often is to find someone else who wants or needs it. That could be what happens anyway if you return a functional phone to a carrier, manufacturer, or retailer whose trade-in and take-back programs refurbish phones to be resold, sometimes in other countries.

Gifting and Donating

If your phone works but doesn’t have much trade-in value, you could check with friends and family to see if anyone has an older phone and might be interested in yours. Contact your local senior centers and retirement communities, or reach out to shelters for victims of domestic violence and other organizations that help vulnerable and at-risk groups.

Some charities specialize in connecting viable phones and other electronics with people in need; the World Computer Exchange, for one, passes on donated smartphones (with chargers) to lower-income communities around the world, part of a mission to reduce electronic waste and “reduce the digital divide for youth in developing countries.”


Aside from trading, recycling, gifting, or donating your old phone, you could also just keep it and repurpose it yourself. A smartphone without cell service can still be useful in several ways, including storing and playing music like an iPod, serving as an extra camera, or even letting you stream media and surf the internet when connected to WiFi. They can be turned into security cameras or Apple TV remotes just by downloading an app.

Privacy Precautions

Whether you’re giving away your phone, donating it, or sending it to be recycled, it’s a good idea to take privacy precautions. At the least, back up your data to the cloud or another device, sign out of all your accounts, remove the SIM card, and perform a factory reset. Businesses and charities that accept old phones commonly pledge to keep your data safe, but you might as well make sure.

Frequently Asked Questions
  • How can I find a drop-off location for recycling my cell phone?

    Drop-off sites can be found at some cell carrier stores and other electronics retailers, including chains like Best Buy and Staples. There are also Call2Recycle drop-off sites and ecoATM phone recycling kiosks across the U.S., and both companies have locator tools on their websites. Depending on where you live, local businesses, nonprofits, schools, or other groups might host regular or periodic cell phone recycling.

  • Can cell phones be recycled by mail?

    Yes. There are multiple options for recycling cell phones by mail. Working phones often can be traded in at a cell carrier, manufacturer, or retailer, but many companies also accept broken or low-value phones for free mail-in recycling. So do some nonprofit groups, which use the proceeds from recycling your phone to support charitable causes.

  • Can batteries be recycled with a cell phone?

    Cell phone batteries are sometimes accepted along with phones for recycling, but it’s a good idea to ask before driving to a drop-off location or mailing in your phone.

  • Are chargers or other cell phone accessories recyclable?

    Many recycling options accept certain accessories like chargers or headsets along with cell phones, but some take phones only, so it may be worth asking first.

View Article Sources
  1. "Average lifespan (replacement cycle length) of smartphones in the United States from 2014 to 2025." Statista. 2021.

  2. Singh, Narendra, et al. "Toxicity Trends in E-Waste: A Comparative Analysis of Metals in Discarded Mobile Phones." Journal of Hazardous Materials, vol. 380, 2019, pp. 120898., doi:10.1016/j.jhazmat.2019.120898

  3. Fan, Youqi, et al. "Experimental Study on Smelting of Waste Smartphone PCBs Based on Al2O3-FeOx-SiO2 Slag System." Advances in Molten Slags, Fluxes, and Salts: Proceedings of the 10th International Conference on Molten Slags, Fluxes and Salts, 2016, pp. 203-210., doi:10.1007/978-3-319-48769-4_21