[This article was originally published in September 2019 and has been updated and expanded.]
Probably the most common sight everywhere these days is the cell phone. And with new phones are being sold every 20 seconds, what happens to the old ones?
There was a time when old phones were routinely tossed in the trash once they died or became hopelessly out-of-date. And, while this may still occur today, there are far better options for safe and even profitable old cell phone disposal.
The Challenge of Getting Rid of Old Cell Phones Properly
The first and most obvious option for getting rid of your old cell phone is to simply gift it to a family member or friend. While it may be true that your teenager may balk at owning your "ancient" piece of tech (i.e. a phone more than two years old!) others may be far more happy and appreciative to receive a good cell phone.
Beyond merely "gifting" friends or family, you can also donate your old, workable phones to any number of charities and non-profit organizations.
A short list that we have posted previously of organizations that specialize in donated cell phones can get you started in that direction:
- AmericaCellPhoneDrive.org will help you do your community and the environment a favor, and legally comply with EPA regulations on disposal of toxic items such as batteries, by joining tens of thousands of individuals and over 5,000 local and national charitable organizations in recycling old, unused cell phones. This is an organization devoted to the socially responsible reuse of retired cellular telephones and cell phone components by raising funds for charitable organizations.
- Cell Phones for Soldiers is an organization that uses the profits from recycling donated phones to provide free calling cards to deployed U.S. soldiers so that they can connect with family back home. It's one of the most popular cell phone donation programs and has prevented over 11.6 million phones from going to landfills in the decade since it started.
In addition, Cell Phones For Soldiers has provided more than 300 million minutes of talk time to our troops serving around the world.
- Working with a variety of charities, PhoneCharity helps groups like the American Red Cross, and the National Wildlife Federation to raise funds through cell phone recycling. As a donor, you can choose from large organizations like these, or find a favorite local charity to support with your donations. There are several affiliated charities around the U.S., so check here to find a drop off spot near you.
There are other groups who can benefit from your old, unwanted phones, as well. Consider your local homeless shelters, faith-based mission entities and youth organizations. With the massive volume of phones in existence, it is quite possible to ensure that everyone who might benefit from owning a cell phone can have one.
And, Yes, You Can Recycle Old Cell Phones
While the actual process of recycling handheld electronic devices such as cell phones and smart phones - along with tablets, e-readers, and laptops - is labor-intensive and time-consuming. But the materials that are extracted and recovered almost always makes it worth the effort.
So, what, exactly, do we get out of those little electronic gadgets that took up so much of our time before we decided to dispose of them?
Well, here's some statistics for you:
- The EPA states that 35,274 lbs of copper, 772 lbs of silver, 75 lbs of gold, and 33 lbs of palladium can be recovered from every one million cell phones that are recycled.
- Cell phones have circuit boards and one ton of circuit boards can contain 40-800 times more gold than one metric ton of ore.
- There is 30-40 times more copper in a ton of recycled circuit boards that can be mined from one metric ton of ore.
- Without recycling, Americans throw out over $60 million in gold and/or silver in old cell phones every year.
Disposing of old cell phones for recycling or reuse has become quite simple today. And there are options for how to go about getting your device recycled. For example, you can trade them in when you buy a new phone for cash or even mail them to companies for recycling.
In addition, you can take them to a number of retail locations that participate in Call2Recycle or have them picked up for recycling along with other household or business e-waste.
What should you do with your old phone before disposing of it?
Here are some tips from the earth911.com website:
"1. If you bought a new phone, make sure to transfer the data from your old phone. The store can often help with this.
2. Locate the settings screen on your phone and factory reset it so all your data is removed. As an added precaution, you can also remove the SIM card.
3. If the cell phone battery is removable, you’ll want to take it out. Most cell phone batteries are lithium-ion batteries, which require special transportation for recycling, so this is especially important if using a manufacturer’s mail-back program."
But when old phones are not reused or somehow repurposed, what happens to them?
If they are not disposed of properly, that is, when they are NOT thrown into the household trash, they can be recycled. The problem is when these devices end up in landfills instead.
According to the California Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC),
Cell phones can contain toxic metals in some of there internal components. For example, the circuit boards in cell phones can contain heavy metals such as arsenic and lead in addition to the other valuable metals such as gold, copper, and platinum.
The rechargeable batteries in cell phones contain lithium and cobalt which makes the cell phone batteries hazardous waste as well. If disposed of improperly, these toxic metals may harm the environmental by contaminating our soil and water resources. Because of their potential toxicity, cell phones must be handled as a hazardous waste and not thrown away in our everyday trash.
The good news is that most old, discarded cell phones make their way into the reuse or recycling stream.
The Cell Phone Recycling Process 'Broken Down'
One approach to cell phone "recycling" is to simply melt down the entire device and use chemical and mechanical extraction processes to recover the precious metals content of the phones.
However, to actually recycle all the components of a typical cell phone, disassembly is required.
An article in one materials science publication provided this description of the process,
Its basic components are disassembled. This will include metal and plastic from the casing and its basic internal components such as the housing and memory. After this step, the circuit boards will be broken down, any accessories, chargers and batteries will all be separated. Even the packaging of the cell phone will be recycled.
The cadmium inside the cell phone battery can be extracted and then used to produce new batteries. Copper in batteries can also be recycled fairly easily. Circuit boards are slightly more complicated and contain many metals including gold, silver and lead. If recycled efficiently, this can lower the demand for sourcing these metals as a virgin raw material and so reduce the environmental impact of mining them. The plastic from phone casing can even be recycled and reused in fencing around home.
Unfortunately, regardless of which recycling processes are utilized, far too many discarded phones never see a second life in any form. According to the EPA, less than 20 percent of unwanted cell phones are recycled each year. And the actual number may be less than that.
Tech blogger Patrick Sinclair stated a few years ago that although virtually 100 percent of phones are reusable and recyclable, only a mere 15 percent percent is actually currently recycled in the United States.
Professional Help to Recycle Old Cell Phones
Your junk recycling partners at Junk King provide efficient, safe and eco-friendly waste disposal services so you don’t need to worry about pick up and green junk removal.
And this usually means junk recycling.
Whether you need our services several times during a clean-up project or just once after it's complete, our hauling professionals will ensure that your business junk is out of your way so that you can get on with the job.
In fact, our team specializes in green junk removal.
We can be at your home or office in mere minutes, so call us today! Our crew is fully insured and well-trained, so you can trust them to get rid of your unwanted items in a professional and courteous fashion.
One of the best things about hiring Junk King is that we recycle a much of the material we pick-up. This is proof of our commitment to being an eco-friendly removal service. If you have questions about what we do or what we believe, give us a call at 1-888-888-JUNK (5865).