Recycling smartphones: yes, it’s a thing. Here’s what you need to know

With Black Friday and the winter holidays just around the corner, we’re in no short supply of good deals during this time of the year. Many people around the world (myself included) will take advantage of these and swap in their phones for a newer model.

Granted, with the way 2020 has been going, it’s likely that fewer people will partake, but that still amounts to a lot of new phones. With that in mind, what happens with the old devices? Hopefully, they get recycled.

There’s a lot of value in a smartphone, even if it’s not the latest model or even if it’s not running perfectly anymore. Whether it’s the materials inside that can be recycled or whether it’s the phone itself that can be donated and reused, the odds are it’s still worth something to someone. The first thing you should consider is whether you want to donate or recycle it, but regardless, here’s what you need to know.

New phone, who dis?

Exactly how to go about recycling your phone depends on the state it’s in. If you’re getting a replacement because your old phone is thoroughly damaged, you can drop it off at any local recycling center. Just make sure to check whether they accept electronic devices in advance. For instance, Earth911 Recycling has a nifty search tool you can use (though there are plenty of others you can use).

If the device is still functional, the first step you should take is securing your data. Resetting your device (some manufacturers might list this as ‘reset to factory settings’) will wipe all your personal data from the device — don’t forget to transfer or back-up anything you want to keep beforehand. Once reset (a process that should take around two to three minutes), the phone will reboot. If it turns on and asks you the opening questions such as what language or network to use, it means the reset worked. Remove the MicroSD and SIM cards or any other storage mediums at this point and you’re good to go.

If you want to be extra sure that all the data has been wiped off the phone, you can encrypt it before resetting. Some earlier versions of Android OS may ask you for a login after resetting, so keep that in mind if you’re giving the phone for someone to use.

You should follow this whether you’re recycling mobile phones at a specialized site or simply passing it along for someone else to use (which is still in the spirit of recycling!). You should definitely secure your data if you’re planning to resell or donate your phone.

Clean it

You should also clean the device as thoroughly as possible, especially in the context of this pandemic. Give it a deep scrub, but avoid products that contain ammonia such as window cleaners — use alcohol instead.

If you’re reselling or offering up for refurbishing, this is the time to check that the device’s basic functions are working. Test the backlight, charging ports, volume control, touchscreen, power button, and camera. Also, check to see if there are any dead or malfunctioning pixels on the display.

Test basic functions: Is everything working? Check the backlight, charging ports, volume control, touchscreen, power button, camera, and whether there are dead pixels on the screen.

Turn in for recycling or refurbishing: Tell the organization you give your phone to about its general condition. They’ll usually test the basic functions to make sure it’s in good shape. If it isn’t, simply tell them to recycle it. If it’s in decent shape, be sure they give you credit for a trade-in or trade-up on your account.

Where to go?

This can differ from country to country. The United States considers electronic waste a “rapidly expanding” issue with an estimated 70% of heavy metals in landfills coming from electronics. Mobile phones are even considered “hazardous waste” in California, and recycling is starting to take off in most urban areas. Mobile phone recycling in the UK and Europe is also starting to grow and all EU countries have at least one recycling center.

Most carriers have trade-in programs for old phones, and you may even get a discount for a new one in return. Manufacturers such as Apple or Samsung also offer similar programs, and there are many companies that will happily buy old phones (either to recover the materials they’re made from or resell them — so secure your data!). Staples, Office Depot, and Best Buy will take in old devices for recycling.

Whichever way you go, don’t keep an unused phone lying around in the house for long; their batteries can become a safety hazard if exposed to temperature extremes or moisture, and you’d be doing the world a favor by recycling it.

Alexandru Micu, October 2020