The Scary Consequences of Old Electronics (& How To Prevent Them)

The Scary Consequences of Old Electronics (& How To Prevent Them)

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Jon Gorey
Apr 21, 2017
(Image credit: bet_noire/Getty)

Have you ever thought about what happens when you get rid of your old phone? Electronic waste may not be a splashy cause, but it's a necessary one. Let's take a look at how old tech is impacting people and the planet, and what you can do about it.

Saturday is Earth Day. But of course, every day is Earth Day, unless you live on the moon. We are all roommates on this big blue marble and, you would hope, feel at least some obligation to protect it.

Saving the world feels increasingly difficult, though, as the Trump administration has vowed to slash the Environmental Protection Agency's budget and shown little interest in combating (or even acknowledging) the slow-motion crisis of climate change, even as more Americans than ever worry about its effects, from rising sea levels to prolonged droughts.

And that's only one piece of the planet-protection puzzle. Amongst myriad concerns (oil spills, gas and chemical leaks, air pollution, contaminated drinking water, to name a few), we keep churning out and buying more stuff.


The average American upgrades to a new phone every 29 months.


Ours is a stuff economy, after all, and we love our gadgets and gizmos. We love them so much that the average American upgrades to a new phone every 29 months, even though that little miracle device, well used and beat up as it may be, still holds more computing power than everything NASA used to send people to the moon.

But all that upgrading comes at a cost. In the United States, we dispose of more than 400,000 cell phones a day. In fact, the US produced 7.1 million tons of electronic waste in 2014; consider that just one of those tons contains 2,000 pounds of old laptops and cell phones. When e-waste finds its way into a landfill, chemicals and toxins like lead, nickel, cadmium, mercury, and arsenic enter the soil and water table, which can cause neurological damage, cancer, birth defects, and other irreversible health effects.

And in developing nations like China—which processes about 70% of the world's electronic waste—lax regulations and extraction methods expose workers and residents to dangerous chemicals. In the Chinese village of Guiyu, for example, lead levels among local children were three times higher than what's considered safe.

So this Earth Day, even if you don't install solar panels on your roof, or drive a hybrid, or switch to LED light bulbs (or even if you do), you can make sure your old consumer devices don't end up poisoning kids in far-off countries.

How to responsibly dispose of an old cell phone

Extend its useful life

If your old phone is still in decent shape and not wildly outdated — say, a 16GB iPhone 5 — you can sell it for cash on a device resale site like Gazelle.com or Flipsy.com (which bills itself as the "blue book" for mobile devices). Otherwise you can trade it in for a gift card or credit toward a new phone at a number of retailers who will likely refurbish and resell it, including Amazon, Apple, Best Buy, and Samsung, among others.

Donate it

You can also donate old phones (even real clunkers) to organizations that distribute working phones to people who need them or donate to charity any money earned from recycling the more valuable components inside a broken one. Verizon's HopeLine, for example, provides free phones to domestic abuse victims, while Second Wave Recycling allows you to choose the charity they donate any recycling proceeds to.

Recycle it

If your old phone is more of a slim brick adorned with a broken screen, don't just throw it in the trash — the stuff inside is both valuable and toxic, and certainly not landfill fodder. But some recycling programs ship their e-waste to developing nations—where regulations are more lax and young kids may end up exposed to it —instead of recycling it domestically, so pay attention to where you recycle it.

Some states — including New York, New Jersey, Maryland, Illinois, and Washington, among others — offer or even require free electronic waste recycling programs. Apple, meanwhile, is among the more responsible consumer recyclers, according to James Puckett, executive director of the industry watchdog Basel Action Network; you can search for other certified recyclers near you on e-Stewards.org.

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