How to Recycle Old Cell Phones

Cell phones tend to be some of the easiest electronics to recycle.

E waste ,disassembled smartphone and recycle bin
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Your old cell phone can be recycled, and due to the metals and plastics it contains, that probably is the best way to dispose of it. There may be multiple options for recycling an old cell phone, though, so how can you determine what’s best?

While some electronic devices can be a challenge to discard responsibly, recycling a cell phone is often relatively easy, especially compared with bulkier or more specialized electronics. If the phone still works, you could just give it to a friend, relative, or anyone else who wants it—after you’ve backed up the data, signed out of your accounts, removed the SIM card, and performed a factory reset.

But even if your phone doesn’t work, or if something like a cracked screen makes it harder to rehome, you can still part ways without sending it to a landfill. And by recycling your old phone, you’ll spare the environment its toxic and non-biodegradable contents, while also donating these still valuable materials to be reused in other devices—thus helping offset demand for new plastics or newly extracted metals.

Here is a closer look at how to properly bid farewell to old phones, whether that means fully recycling them, finding new uses for them, or helping them find a new owner.

Cell Phone Recycling

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, including aluminum, cadmium, chromium, copper, gold, iron, lead, lithium, nickel, silver, tin, and zinc.

If a phone is thrown away instead of recycled, it may face greater odds of ending up somewhere unsuitable and causing trouble. On top of the risk of plastic pollution, many of the metals in mobile phones are toxic to humans and other animals, including several with 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 non-cancer health risks, the researchers wrote in the Journal of Hazardous Materials, while copper “dominated ecotoxicity risks” from phones.

If possible, a functional cell phone is commonly kept intact and reused rather than broken down and recycled piece by piece. That does happen to many dead or badly damaged phones, though, and it’s a good way to protect human and ecological health while also conserving materials that are expensive and destructive to produce.

Nonviable phones are often broken down and sold for parts, or shredded into pieces so the materials can be sorted and recycled. Metal components from cell phones may be smelted and reconstituted, for example, allowing them to be reused.

How to Recycle Cell Phones

If you have an old cell phone to recycle, you could 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 takeback programs from retailers, manufacturers, or other local electronics recycling operations.

Trade-Ins and Takeack Programs

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) lists a few examples on its page about electronics donation and recycling. Major cell carriers including AT&T, T-Mobile, and Verizon offer trade-in programs for some older phones that still work, for instance, but also accept ineligible phones for free recycling, either in their stores or by mail. Some other carriers may have similar options, so it’s worth asking.

Many manufacturers will also take your old phone off your hands, although some only accept their own products. Apple and Samsung both have trade-in programs for eligible older phones, for example, 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.

Some retailers have trade-in programs, too, including a few big-box electronics and office supply chains as well as online retail giant Amazon. Some stores also serve as free drop-off sites for phone recycling: Best Buy and Staples both include mobile phones among the electronics they accept for recycling, for example, as well as some phone accessories like charging cables and hands-free headsets.

Drop-Off Sites

Another option is Call2Recycle, a national consumer battery recycling program that accepts “all types of cell phones and cell phone batteries regardless of size, make, model, or age,” according to its website. 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 thanks to ecoATM, a company with 4,800 automated phone-recycling kiosks around the country. 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 charitable donations, thanks to organizations that recycle donated phones and use the proceeds 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 members of the military, victims of domestic violence, and health care workers in developing regions, among many other causes.

Ways to Reuse Cell Phones

Cell phone recycling
An employee of the Love2recycle.fr recycling company controls smartphones in Brive, southern France.

AFP / Getty Images

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 after you return an old but functional phone to a carrier, manufacturer, retailer, whose trade-in and takeback 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. You also may be able to find someone who needs it even more, perhaps by contacting local senior centers and retirement communities, or reaching 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.”

Repurposing

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. As Lifewire points out, some old iPhones also can be turned into security cameras or Apple TV remotes by downloading an app.

Privacy Precautions

In any of these cases—if you’re giving away your phone, donating it, or sending it to be recycled—it’s a good idea to take a few privacy precautions first. 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.

FAQs

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 the 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.

What about chargers or other accessories?

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. 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

  2. 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