old computers and cell phones, e-waste

It happens to all of us, when the computer, smartphone, or another electronic device no longer meets our needs. Making your electronics last as long as possible is the most effective way to lower the carbon footprint of your digital life. If you can’t repair or upgrade it, repurpose it, sell it, trade it in, or even give it away — it’s time to consider your e-waste recycling options.

More than half of the total carbon footprint of your computer is generated when it is manufactured and 72% of a phone’s CO2 bill is due to the refining of raw materials, manufacturing, and shipping. According to the European Environmental Bureau, a smartphone would need to be used for between 25 and 232 years to completely offset its manufacturing carbon footprint. In recent years, consumers have drastically extended the average time between phone upgrades from 2.74 years in 2017 to 3.17 years in 2020. But only 17.4% of 53.6 million tons of old phones, computers, and other electronics are recycled annually.

Electronics makers and hobbyists are also offering new programs that let you repurpose a computer, tablet, iPhone, or Galaxy smartphone to use it for a different function, such as a home camera or alarm clock. But the inevitable day will come when the hardware will no longer support the latest software and no longer meets your needs — or simply no longer works. When that happens, this quick guide provides you options and offers tips to help you responsibly recycle your e-waste. Always be sure to follow these steps to remove your data and prepare your device for recycling.

Except for Monitors, e-Waste Recycling Should Be Free or Earn You Trade-in Credit

As a rule, you shouldn’t have to pay for recycling computers and smartphones, because the gold, silver, palladium, and other metals and components are worth a considerable amount of money — one expert estimates that $12 billion in unrecycled electronics are tossed in landfills annually. With the exception of flatscreen and CRT displays and TVs — which you can expect to pay a modest per-item fee ($10-$30-ish) to recycle because they require special handling — your e-waste recycling should be free.

If you are ready to upgrade, some stores and most manufacturers offer trade-in credit toward a new phone. Charities like Goodwill will also give you charitable donation receipts for your tax returns.

Many vendors will even cover shipping costs in case you can’t find a convenient local drop-off — although you’ll need to provide and do the packaging. For example:

  • Dell: Dell’s recycling options include their Mail-back Recycling Program for Dell products.
  • HP: HP offers free recycling for all brands of home office equipment through their partnerships with Staples and FedEx in the U.S. You can drop your equipment at a Staples near you or get a FedEx shipping and recycling voucher.
  • Samsung: The Korean electronics giant recycles its phones and PCs for free via mail, through a network of partners, or at its Samsung Experience Stores.
  • Apple: iPhones, Macs, and Apple TV devices can be recycled in more than 100 countries, including drop-off programs at Apple Stores.
  • Microsoft: The maker of Windows will recycle any device it manufactured that is not eligible for upgrade credit. The program is operated by a partner, CExchange, and provides free shipping for a wide range of devices submitted to its trade-in program.
  • Google: In addition to providing ubiquitous search services, Google makes dozens of electronics products, from Chromebooks to smart thermostats and smart speakers. The company will provide a free shipping label through its recycling program partner, RLG Americas.

Why Recycle Computers and Smartphones (and Other E-waste) Responsibly

There are many reasons to keep computers and smartphones out of the garbage stream, including:

  • They contain toxic metals that harm the environment/ecosystem.
  • These toxic metals can be dangerous to people overseas — often children or prisoners — who may be picking through and disassembling these items. Be sure to use a recycling program certified by R2 or e-Stewards standards to prevent your electronics from being dumped in a low-income country.
  • In many states and localities, it’s illegal to put consumer electronics in your trash.
  • E-waste recycling recovers useful materials and saves energy.

Identifying Responsible E-cyclers for Your Computers and Smartphones

Fortunately, you don’t have to figure out what constitutes responsible e-waste recycling or research whether a given e-waste recycler is meeting those requirements. That’s been done. In the United States, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recognizes two accredited certification standards regarding responsible electronics recycling:

If an e-waste recycling location displays certification from one of these organizations, that should be enough to satisfy your concerns that your e-waste will be handled correctly. In particular, these programs prohibit the exporting of e-waste to low-income countries, where little or no oversight of recycling, environmental, or worker safety exists.

If the recycler offers another e-cycling certification or no information, look for an R2 or e-Stewards program instead.

Finding a Place That Accepts Your To-Be-Recycled Devices

As a consumer, you aren’t actually bringing your old computers and smartphones to the big room where the recycling happens — you need to deliver your e-waste to a collection point. You can start at the Earth911 Recycling Database.

Which ones are best for you depends on various factors, including:

  • Convenience. How far do you have to drive and are they on any of your regular “chore routes”? (See 5 Tips to Make Recycling a Part of Your Daily Routine.)
  • How many items you have. Some locations may only accept a limited number of items per visit, perhaps half a dozen, or even just three. Some locations may require you to make a purchase to deposit an item.
  • Hours and availability. Recycling centers often have more limited hours than stores. Additionally, your recycling center may be by-appointment-only, either due to COVID restrictions (like my town’s currently is) or other reasons.

Stores and Manufacturers: Drop off, Mail in, or Schedule a Pickup

Many stores — particularly chains that sell consumer electronics like Best Buy and Staples (but not Costco, which discontinued its recycling program) — offer e-cycling for your computers, smartphones, and other e-waste.

Depending on the organization, location, and the device you want to recycle, your options will range from drop-off to mail-in or arrange for pick-up.

Here are a few retail options available in many regions of the U.S.:

  • Best Buy: “You can recycle up to three items per household per day (see categories below for state-specific info, and different limitations on TVs, computer monitors and laptops).”
  • Goodwill: Through a partnership with Dell ReConnect, Goodwill accepts computers and other electronics for recycling at over 2,000 Goodwill locations across the U.S.
  • Staples: Free electronics recycling for many items. (According to the Staples website, as of early May 2021, it temporarily suspended the e-waste recycling program as part of COVID precautions.)

Have a phone to recycle? Wireless carriers, such as AT&T, Sprint, and T-Mobile, also offer trade-in programs.

Is there still some life left in your laptop or iPad? Check out 5 Ways To Reuse an Old Laptop and 10 Ways To Reuse an Old iPad.

By Daniel Dern

Daniel P. Dern is a freelance technology and business writer, primarily about computer/Internet technology, including related environmental aspects of heat/cooling/power, manufacturing, and "end-of-life" recycling. His articles have appeared in the Boston Globe, Byte, ComputerWorld, IEEE Spectrum, and TechTarget. He also writes science fiction and kids stories (some are both), doing his best not to recycle plotlines.