What to Do With Old Cell Phones (Because You Can’t Throw Them Away)

There are right and wrong ways to get rid of an old cell phone. Choose a method that will protect your information and the planet at the same time.
Deirdre Mundorf Avatar
A woman's hand places a cell phone in a small cardboard box full of electronics for donation.
Photo: istockphoto.com

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Q: While cleaning out my desk I realized that I have several old cell phones that I’ve been meaning to get rid of. I’m just not sure what to do with old cell phones. Can I throw them in the trash?

A: You’re not alone. Many people struggle with what to do with old cell phones. As technology continues to advance, it seems we’re getting a new model every year or two, meaning the old cell phones can pile up quickly. You shouldn’t just throw a smartphone in the trash. In fact, they are one of the items that are illegal to throw away in many states. Some of the electrical components can be toxic to the environment.

So, if you don’t have a way to use your old smartphone at home, what are you supposed to do with it? Ahead, we’ll explain the various options that will keep both your data and the planet safe.

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First, back up your information and wipe it from the old phone.

Before you start worrying about how to dispose of old cell phones, you first need to back up your photos and other important information that is stored on the device. After saving anything that you’ll need access to in the future, it is essential to wipe your data from the old phone to prevent it from getting into the wrong hands.

Victor Willingham, a lead information security engineer for Wells Fargo, explains, “Most modern mobile devices (tablets and phones) have reliable data wiping processes built into their base operating systems (OS). Following the prescribed method based on your device (it varies by manufacturer and OS version) should be sufficient for any device that has received an OS update in the past 3 to 4 years.” Older cell phones won’t provide such a simple process for clearing your personal information, so Willingham recommends seeking “a trusted IT provider or support technician” in these circumstances.

Trade in your old cell phone when you buy a new one.

Whether you have an old school cell phone from several years ago or one that you just got last year, you can probably trade it in when you purchase a new phone. “Most cellular providers will take your used mobile devices like phones and tablets, battery and all,” says Willingham. “They are often able to recover and reuse fundamental components from within the devices.” Trading in an old phone will provide you with a credit towards the purchase of your new device. The amount of the credit will vary based on the age and condition of your existing phone.

Two women holding different brands of smartphones near one another.
Photo: istockphoto.com

Donate old cell phones that still work.

Instead of looking up “how to destroy old cell phones,” think about ways your old phone could benefit someone else. Just because you’ve decided to upgrade to a newer model, if your old phone still works, it could help someone less fortunate. You can donate old cell phones to Goodwill, or other organizations such as The 911 Cell Phone Bank, National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, Cell Phones for Soldiers, and Veterans Advantage.

If someone else on your cellular plan has a phone older than yours, consider donating your device to them. They might appreciate technology that’s newer than what they are currently using.

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Sell your old cell phones online.

Another option is to sell old cell phones. There are many places that buy old cell phones, both online and through local storefront locations. Selling your cell phone can provide you with some quick cash that can help you balance out what you just spent upgrading to a newer model.

As for who buys old cell phones, there are several different sites you can look into. A few of these include Gazelle, Decluttr, Swappa, eBay, Craigslist, and Facebook Marketplace.

Take it to a local retailer that accepts and recycles electronics.

You can also recycle old cell phones if your model isn’t worth selling or donating. While cell phones generally aren’t one of the products that you can recycle for money, recycling them is rather simple. Many cellular service providers and other retailers offer recycling services. Look up a local retailer that accepts cell phones and drop it off in the collection box in the store.

A close view of rows of stacked cell phones traded in.
Photo: istockphoto.com

Dispose of old cell phones at your local e-waste recycling facility.

Many communities and local governments provide e-waste recycling services for electronic devices, including cell phones. Before disposing of old electronics at one of these facilities, be sure to research whether you should recycle the device as one piece or remove any of its components. For example, the Environmental Protection Agency recommends removing batteries from devices as they should be recycled separately.

If you’re not sure whether there is an e-waste recycling facility near you, check with your local government office. You could also search for “e-waste recycling near me” to bring up a list of local options.

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Final Thoughts

When preparing for old cell phone disposal, it is important to protect your personal data along with the environment. If you don’t wipe your information off of the phone before getting rid of it, data thieves could access it and use it to steal your identity or perform other bad acts.

Once the information is off the phone, keep it out of a landfill by trading it in, selling it, donating it, or recycling it according to local regulations. The battery in a cell phone contains toxic chemicals. As Willingham explains, “These can leach into the environment…If the battery can be removed, do so and properly dispose of (it) separately as directed by local regulations and law.”