What to do with old cell phones

What to do With Old Cell Phones? Tips for Recycling and Disposal

Using mobile technology increases every year. As of 2021, there were 5.7 billion phone users. The more we buy new devices, the more electronic waste we produce. We buy a new phone because of damage, or it becomes outdated. Manufacturers also contribute to the increase in phone waste by releasing multiple phone flagships quickly. An average American uses a phone for two and half years before changing to a new device. 

So, what happens to the old cell phones we switch from? This article explores why you should be careful when disposing of your old device and the best ways to avoid environmental harm. It also lists ways to give your cell phones a new life. 

Reasons to Avoid Incorrectly Disposing of Old Cell Phones

pile of old mobile phones
Photo by Eirik Solheim on Unsplash

A cell phone reaches the end of its lifespan when it stops working or when its owner gets an upgrade. Some people just throw their old devices into the trash, where they'll be transported to the landfill. However, incorrectly disposing of your old phone has a terrible environmental impact. 

Used and old cell phones are electronic waste. Wrongful disposal of a smartphone that's spoiled or out of use is dangerous to the environment at large. Electronic devices are not biodegradable, so they just accumulate in the environment. Manufacturers of smartphones use metals like gold, silver, and palladium in the components of our phones that power all those essential features and glossy displays.  Apart from damaging the environment, improper disposal of old mobile phones leads to the loss of valuable materials2.

Soil, water, and air pollutants

These toxic materials contaminate soil, leading to the acidification of the soil, destroying the soil's quality, and reducing agriculture's productivity - soil degradation can reduce plant growth and their quality, potentially leading to food insecurity. 

Leached metals and toxins can also cause the contamination of groundwater sources. The compounds released from old devices flow into groundwater and other water sources like lakes, rivers, and wells. Here they contribute to the acidification of the water sources, harming humans and biodiversity. 

An example of this occurrence is in Hong Kong. The Guiyu province in Hong Kong experienced water scarcity because of water contamination. Another victim is Pakistan. Groundwater contamination affects the country's crop yield and causes the death of infants.

Another impact of mobile phone e-waste on the environment is air pollution. It also contributes to climate change in the environment. People mishandle mobile phone waste when they burn or melt it. The chemical compounds released into the atmosphere can cause severe respiratory health problems. Also, the greenhouse gas known as CO2 released from burning old electronics hastens global warming1.

These compounds can also cause several health problems. For instance, barium can lead to lung, liver, heart, and brain damage. Cadmium accumulates in the human liver and kidney. It causes congenital disabilities, and lithium causes muscle weakness, nausea, and diarrhea.

Lead causes damage to the blood systems, kidneys, and central and peripheral nervous systems. It can also affect the brain development of a child. Interactions with leached mercury can lead to respiratory and skin disorders. You can experience these disorders by consuming fish with accumulated mercury3.

What to do with old cell phones?

Broken cell phone
Photo by Ashkan Forouzani on Unsplash

Given the harmful impacts of cell phone waste on the environment, we should avoid the careless disposal of old cell phones. There are other ways to dispose of or repurpose an old smartphone. You could: 

Recycle old cell phones 

Several studies have shown that a need for more awareness concerning recycling old and used cell phones is a significant cause of low recycling rates. However, you can recycle old and unwanted cell phones by dropping them in specific recycling programs. 

Here, cell phones recycled correctly are carefully broken apart and dismantled to separate valuable parts, which they reuse to make a new cell phone. They use these metal parts instead of mining virgin resources

So, drop your old phone at the nearest recycling kiosks and centers. These centers keep old phones out of the environment. Also, you can search for a phone repairer if you need help finding recycling kiosks around you. A phone technician can reuse phone parts to repair faulty ones. You can drop your old smartphone at many mobile phone stores or repair shops or sell it to raise money. However, the phone type and condition determine the rates they'll buy old smartphones. 

Some e-waste recycling companies will accept your old cell phone and other old electronics. Some of these companies pay to collect old cell phones. They include Eco Cell, Best Buy, Medic, and Gazelle. 

Related: What To Do With Old Phone Cases? - Recycling and Reuse

Sign up for an upgrade or trade-in program. 

You can go for a trade-in program to eliminate unwanted mobile phones. It is not all phones that become old because of damage. Some phones become obsolete because their owners are tired of using them or require the latest features. They still operate adequately and therefore are still useful. Instead of dumping the old phone into the trash or storing the phone, you can look into trade-in programs offered by your phone brands. 

Some brands offer an upgrade program when they release new phone flagships. Apple and Samsung are examples of brands that provide upgrade programs. Verizon also has an upgrade program that allows people to swap their old smartphones for gift vouchers.

As long as your phone is in good working condition (i.e., the absence of cracks on the screen and internal error), you can swap your phone for a new one. Sometimes, you might have to raise extra cash to meet up with the cost of the new phone. 

Donate old phones  

You can donate cell phones to people who do not have access to mobile technology. Some of these people have disabilities or may be experiencing challenging situations that may prevent them from acquiring phones. Many organizations distribute phones to women in abusive relationships. 

Some organizations benefit from the sale of old devices. They raise money by selling phones and using them towards a goal. An example of this charitable organization is Cell Phones for Soldiers. They buy long-distance calling cards from service providers for soldiers serving in a foreign land by selling used phones to recyclers or refurbishers. 

Each donated old device provides one hour of free talk time from a service provider. Since their establishment in 2004, they have provided 400 million minutes of airtime and recycled 25 million cell phones.

Also, you can donate your old cell phone to a family member who needs it. It could be an educational tool for children of extended family members or siblings. 

Repurpose old phones

You can reuse your old cell phone as something else instead of hiding it in your junk drawer or throwing it away. You can repurpose an old smartphone into an emergency phone, digital photo frame, alarm clock, e-reader, or device for streaming media. Most phones come with a built-in alarm system. The alarm clock works without cell service so that you can use it as your bedside alarm. It saves you from spending a few bucks on an alarm clock. 

You can also use your old cell phone as an emergency phone because it doesn't need a service provider to call 911. However, ensure you put it in a spot you can reach easily during emergencies and maintain a charge. You can repurpose old tabs or cell phones into a desktop computer or a streaming device. Connect it to Wi-Fi to watch your favorite shows on Apple TV. 

Preparing your phone before giving it away. 

Ensure you have any valuable data extracted from your old device before dropping it off. Back up your data into your preferred cloud service, unsubscribe from payment services, and sign out of apps with your personal details and information. Delete saved passwords and do a factory reset. Also, remember to remove your sim card and memory card before sending it to refurbishing electronics retailers or a recycling program.

Looking after your new phone

You’ll undoubtedly have a new one in mind when getting rid of your old phone. 

A new cell phone purchase marks an exciting acquisition and a critical opportunity to extend its longevity, minimizing its environmental footprint. By taking care of the device, its lifespan can be significantly prolonged, reducing the frequency with which we need to replace them.

Safeguarding your device from accidental falls, abstaining from overcharging, and opting for software updates all help preserve its integral components. Grab an eco-friendly phone case to protect it from knocks and drops. 


We can prevent our mobile phones from damaging the environment in many ways. Attempt to research e-waste recyclers around you. They accept all forms of electronic devices, including phones. You can also sign up for a phone swap deal with your manufacturers, as they take the old phone from you before giving you the new one. 

Recycling and reusing your phone gives it a second life and protects the environment from toxic substances. It also makes the money you spend purchasing it worth a while. 

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Ramachandran Rajesh, Dharmaraj Kanakadhurga, Natarajan Prabaharan, Electronic waste: A critical assessment on the unimaginable growing pollutant, legislations and environmental impacts, Environmental Challenges, Volume 7, 2022, 100507, ISSN 2667-0100.


Prabhu N, S., & Majhi, R. (2023). Disposal of obsolete mobile phones: A review on replacement, disposal methods, in-use lifespan, reuse and recyclingWaste management & research : the journal of the International Solid Wastes and Public Cleansing Association, ISWA41(1), 18–36.


Rao, L. N. (2014, April). Environmental Impact of Uncontrolled Disposal of E-Wastes (pdf). International journal of ChemTech Research.

Jen’s a passionate environmentalist and sustainability expert. With a science degree from Babcock University Jen loves applying her research skills to craft editorial that connects with our global changemaker and readership audiences centered around topics including zero waste, sustainability, climate change, and biodiversity.

Elsewhere Jen’s interests include the role that future technology and data have in helping us solve some of the planet’s biggest challenges.

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