According to the Consumer Electronics Association, the average modern cellphone lasts less than five years. After that time, the hardware, software, and firmware become so out of date that the phone will likely stop working and becomes easier to hack.
Most people do not use their smartphones that long, though. In fact, the average user keeps a smartphone for two years or less and then upgrades to the latest model.
But what happens to all these cellphones after two years? Sometimes, the owners trade their old models in for new ones. In other cases, selling the phone means cash in hand, which may go toward a new phone or another project.
Too often, though, most of us upgrade to a new phone, but leave our old phones lying around — uncharged and untouched. Instead of keeping old electronics in a shoebox in your closet, you can help reduce waste and reuse materials by recycling your electronics.
First Steps Before Recycling Your Old Phone
While it is possible to recycle electronic devices like smartphones, these are not recyclable in the same way that glass or plastic bottles are. You cannot simply put your old phone in your recycling bin for the city to pick up.
Most cities, states, and counties do not want you to throw old phones away either. This is because electronics have many toxic components that can leak harmful chemicals into the ground if they sit in a landfill. So, recycling your phone takes a little more thought and process than recycling a soda can, but it is still fairly easy to accomplish, no matter where you live.
Recycling your phone is a great option if you want to get rid of a phone that is more than two years old, phones that are damaged, or if you want to help others through a charitable donation. But there are a few steps you must take first to be sure your phone is ready to be recycled.
- Make sure everything important has been removed from your phone. Pictures, phone numbers, and personal information must all be removed
- Transfer any data to your new phone. Your phone carrier should be able to help with this.
- Factory reset your phone to make sure anything personal has been deleted.
- If the phone battery is removable, take it out, since lithium-ion batteries require special disposal processes.
- Decide where you want to recycle your phone.
Once you’ve prepared your phone for recycling, where should you take it? There are a variety of programs as of 2019, which take phones and recycle them.
Recycling Through the Phone’s Manufacturer
If your phone is too old or damaged for a trade-in, you can still typically return it to the manufacturer to be recycled. As e-waste becomes a larger problem, and more people are buying small, portable electronics like smartphones and tablets, more electronics manufacturers are offering recycling programs to safely dispose of these devices.
- Apple: This program allows you to drop your iPhone off at an Apple store or mail it in, no matter what state or city you live in. If the device is a newer model, the company may give you a gift certificate that can go toward your next iPhone.
- Samsung: This Android manufacturer’s program is called the Mobile Take-Back Program, which sends you a prepaid envelope so you can package your phone and send it safely through the mail. Then, Samsung will dispose of the phone with minimal impact on the environment, meaning they will recycle as many of the parts as possible.
- LG and HTC: Both of these Android phone manufacturers have information on their programs through their websites, where you can enter your zip code to see if there is a drop-off location so you can easily dispose of your old phone. These companies both accept their competitors’ phones too, with no pressure to upgrade to one of their devices after you get rid of your old device.
Major cellphone providers in the United States — AT&T, T-Mobile, Sprint, and Verizon — all offer recycling programs of their own too. You can walk into one of their storefronts or check out their websites for program details. If there is not a store you can easily access, you can mail your phone in after following the carrier’s specific instructions.
Other Recycling Options
If your phone’s manufacturer or service provider cannot recycle your phone, or there is not a simple way to do it because of your location, there are other options that might make more sense for your needs.
- City, county, or state program: Your local government is increasingly likely to have a recycling option for your phone. Check out your local government’s website for information about recycling programs for electronics and other household devices. If your city, county, or state does not offer a program like this, they may be able to point you toward local resources that can safely dispose of or recycle electronics.
- Big box store: Game Stop, Best Buy, Staples, Amazon, Office Depot, and other large retailers that sell electronics offer recycling or buy-back programs, depending on the condition of the phone and your location. You may want to call your nearest retailer or look at their website to see if they provide an e-waste recycling program near you, but many of them will help you get rid of your old electronics, either through a charitable recycling program or by offering you store credit when you get rid of your older smartphone.
- Charities: If your phone is not more than five years old, you may be able to donate it to a charity that refurbishes phones for those in need. For example, Cell Phones for Soldiers refurbishes phones for service members, so they can call their loved ones while they are in training or deployed. Other programs, like Hope Phones and the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, help those suffering personal hardships stay in touch with employers, loved ones, and services with a refurbished phone.
- Friends or relatives: The simplest form of “recycling” is to hand down your smartphone to someone you know who needs it. Perhaps you have a friend who cannot afford a phone but needs to make calls for job interviews. Maybe you have a teenager who needs a phone to keep in touch with you, but you do not want them to have an expensive device that may get stolen at school or easily damaged. There are many reasons to keep your older phones in good shape and give them to those you love.
Some of these programs will offer you money, gift certificates, or store credit in exchange for handing over your phone. However, recycling your phone will typically not provide money, even if your phone is still worth several hundred dollars.
If you have a phone that is in good shape, not overly customized, and less than two years old, you can still get money or a good trade-in deal. Then, your old phone will not take up space in your closet or on your desk, and you can either get cash in hand, a new model phone, or both.
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How to Recycle Your Phone No Matter Where You Live. (March 7, 2017). Popular Science.
How to Recycle Cell Phones. Earth 911.
How to Recycle Old Electronics. (April 22, 2018). Consumer Reports.
10 Ways to Recycle Your Phone. (April 10, 2019). Android Authority.