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What to Do With Old Cell Phones

I've been researching and writing about consumer electronics for over 13 years.

What Should We Do With Old Cell Phones?

We love our cell phones and are lost without them, but we are a fickle group. After a time, almost any cell phone will cease to function, but long before that, many of us find a newer model to replace our more "antiquated" phone.

The average person uses a cell phone approximately 18 months before replacing it. With an estimated 250 million-plus cell phones in the US alone, this presents an issue as far as disposal of old cell phones. It's currently estimated that there are 500 million cell phones sitting on shelves or in landfills in this country with an additional 140 million added to landfills annually

The EPA has designated mobile phones as hazardous waste due to their lead, mercury, cadmium, and arsenic content. Thus, we are faced with the environmental/health issues that arise, as well as the economic result of wasted resources.

Find out your options for dealing with old cell phones.

What is the Cost of Disposing of Old Cell Phones Improperly?

  • US Geological Survey Fact Sheet
    A concise report about the amount of waste that you contribute each time you improperly dispose of an old cell phone or other electronics.
  • NY Times Article
    A detailed article about the scope of the problem and upcoming options.
  • Recycling for Charities
    An article that covers some of the major toxic elements in old cell phones and their negative effects on us.

The True Story of Our eWaste

Be Safe

Don't sell, donate, recycle, or otherwise dispose of old cell phones until you've made sure your personal information has been removed. Read further regarding the precautions you should take.

Option #1: Recycle

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that less than 20% of old cell phones are currently being recycled. Consumers do have viable options to recycle old cell phones; some programs reclaim the precious metals and components of the phone and others provide donated equipment that is still operable for charity.

The EPA has worked with leading manufacturers and retailers to make recycling old cell phones easier.

The EPA site even provides a list of locations where cell phones can be taken for recycling.

Other Places to Recycle Old Cell Phones

There are many sites online that offer recycling services. In most instances, consumers merely fill out a form and mail their old cell phone, with the form, to the address provided.

Recyclemycellphone is one such site. The site also encourages interested visitors to help in setting up recycling programs within their community.

Most wireless providers and some manufacturers offer recycling programs. AT&T offers such an option. Find out more about the charitable efforts of other providers below.

For organizations, schools, and businesses ThinkRecycle offers a program with cash rewards and is often used for fundraising efforts.

Many electronics retailers also participate in recycling programs and serve as a drop off point for consumers. Best Buy and Staples are two examples.

Option #2: Donate

If you want to donate old cell phones for charity, there are many programs available. Most cellular carriers, in fact, offer programs.

For instance, Verizon Wireless offers the Hopeline program which collects phones from any provider to assist victims of domestic violence. They also conduct a battery recycling program.

Sprint has a buyback program that allows you to estimate the price of your device and also gives you the option of donating your old phone through their 1Million Project which provides devices with internet access to kids who don't have it. It can help improve their chances of long-term success.

AT&T also has a Trade-In program that allows you to donate the value of your cell phone to Phones for Soldiers.

T-Mobile has run charitable drives in response to immediate needs including hurricane relief efforts and a holiday drive to support Feed America.

To donate old cell phones to others in need, or to raise funds for charity, there are many additional options, several of which are listed below.

Where to Donate Old Cell Phones

Option #3: Sell

Cell phones can cost quite a bit of money. Therefore, the option to sell old cell phones can be attractive to help cover the cost of a new one.

Best Buy will give you a gift card for the value of your old phone. This is great if you are wanting to upgrade. Amazon offers a similar program. Of course, there is always eBay as well.

EcoATM is an option you might find available in a mall, they have some kiosks, but you can also find it online. Again, it will assign a value to your phone and you can get cash. Of course some older phones won't have value, but in that case, you can choose to donate.

Another popular option for getting money for an old phone is from gazelle.com. You can search for your specific phone model, find the value of it, and get cash.

Option #4: Trade

For those who wish to rid themselves of not only their cell phone but also a current cellular contract, it may pay to investigate the option to trade old cell phones and contract via subleasing. One such site that can assist with this is CellTradeUSA.

CellTradeUSA basically connects individuals who wish to get out of a contract with people wanting to get in. Users can post a free ad indicating the monthly fee, the minutes, and the remaining contract period that would be assumed. There is a single fee of $19.99 to gain unlimited access to responses from your posting. Once someone is found to assume the contract, the process is brief and simply involves a credit check by the cellular provider and signing a transfer contract. This system allows users to get out of contracts early, pass along their phone to another user, and avoid any early termination fees.

As mentioned above most of the cellular providers (Verizon, AT&T, etc.) have trade-in programs. You can trade in OR donate in most of those programs.

Option #5: Keep It As a Backup

The majority of old cell phones are still in fine working order when we replace them. Thus, the final option for an old phone is obvious, keep it and use it.

A choice can be made to wait another year or two to "upgrade". This also offers the advantage of significant money savings.

Even if you choose to replace a functioning phone, perhaps a backup could be useful. A phone that is kept in the car for emergency use, or used when more rugged conditions are anticipated. Hiking, going to the beach, and similar activities do pose certain threats to that shiny new model. Or perhaps, not every member of the family has their own phone, having a "floater phone" that is used as needed could be a great way of meeting some of the less routine communication needs.

Even old cell phones without service can be used to make 911 calls, making these older phones valuable.

#6 Repurpose Your Phone

Modern cell phones fulfill a variety of needs. Sure they make calls and send messages but they also act as a camera, a watch, a music player, and much more.

If your old phone no longer has a place in your pocket as your primary device, perhaps you have a youngster who needs a camera. Or maybe an alarm clock. In some instances, it could be a gaming device or a sort or music player. There are always functions they can serve as long as they are in working order; calculators, flashlights, and more without a SIM card or paying your wireless carrier. Obviously, the phone would need to be charged.

Before You Part with Your Old Cell Phone

Whether you recycle, trade, or sell old cell phones there are precautions you should take.

  • Terminate your account to assure no additional charges will be associated with it.
  • Cell phones contain a great deal of personal information so before you send your phone off for recycling, donation, or to a buyer, be sure you have removed as much data as possible. Remove your SIM card.
  • Check the cell phone manual for instructions on how to reset your phone.
  • If someone else will be using your old cell phone, you should unlock it first to assure it can be used by the receiving party. Sites online abound to help with this, CNET offers their advice here.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2008 Ruth Coffee

Was This Page Helpful? Let Us Know!

Chris Klow on October 04, 2019:

Great article. What I suggest you, sell your old and used cell phones to Telecom Recycle and get a fair amount of money in return.

E L Seaton from Virginia on October 10, 2011:

Technology changes before my phones do. Great and informative lens though. Thanks for sharing.

Nancy Tate Hellams from Pendleton, SC on October 10, 2008:

Thank you for all this valuable information and links. I never thought about them being dangerous or about the information they held. Thanks for the heads up.

Evelyn Saenz from Royalton on September 03, 2008:

I was going to suggest donating old cell phones to schools to use for play but after reading this lens it sounds like they have too many hazardous chemicals.

Thank you so much for the info.

anonymous on August 14, 2008:

Great information!! Good deals here - www.dotcells.com

coastingalong on June 02, 2008:

So glad I found your lens as I am need of replacing my cell. Your information here gave great insights on the how-to of owning a cell. Thanks

WhippetTalk on April 20, 2008:

Great! I was just cleaning out some old boxes today I had in storage and came across 2 old cell phones. I was just wondering what I should do with them, since I knew it was bad to just toss them out. Thanks for the resources!

bernd49 lm on April 16, 2008:

Thanks for your great work!! 5stars

Greetings from Vienna

rebeccahiatt on April 03, 2008:

Good information. I have a collection, maybe I should donate them.

TriviaChamp on April 02, 2008:

Wow great lens. I never realised that I could donate my old phone. Thanks for the tip.

~Jane

clouda9 lm on April 02, 2008:

Jam packed lens! Thanks for sharing this info. I think cellforcash.com is a great way to go ;)

Susan Deppner from Arkansas USA on January 27, 2008:

There's an organization around here that recycles/sells old cell phones to raise money to buy phone cards for troops in Iraq, which I think is a great project (especially since I have a son going back over there soon). Nice lens!

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