How Should I Dispose of my Old Cell Phone Accessories?

Mary McMahon

With growing consumer awareness about electronic waste, many people are unsure of how to dispose of things like old cell phone accessories. Fortunately, there are a number of environmentally friendly ways to get rid of them, and many cell phone providers are happy to provide consumers with recycling information and resources. In any case, it's a good idea to remember what you shouldn't do, which is throw your accessories away in the trash.

Old cell phones may be donated.
Old cell phones may be donated.

The concern with throwing old electronics away is that many of them contain substances that are toxic, and that could potentially leak from landfills to contaminate the soil and groundwater. These toxins will also linger, creating a potentially hazardous situation for future generations. In addition, the processes of mining and transporting these materials are often not very environmentally friendly, so if you can recycle them, you can reduce the load on the environment. Recycling ideally insures that materials are used in the most efficient way possible and with a minimal generation of waste.

Old electronics cannot be thrown away in household recycling for curbside pickup.
Old electronics cannot be thrown away in household recycling for curbside pickup.

Recycling is not without environmental risks, however. Some recyclers do not run clean facilities, and as a result, they can create contamination and landfill waste. Others send their electronics overseas for recycling, where they may be hacked apart by people who are not fully trained, potentially causing pollution and exposing people to dangerous chemicals. In many developing nations, electronic waste is a major pollutant, contaminating soil and groundwater and causing serious health problems.

The best thing to do with old cell phone accessories is to return them to the manufacturer or to your cellular service provider. Many companies have set up extensive recycling programs in response to concerns about electronic waste and to bring down production costs, and they are often happy to send postage-paid envelopes to consumers so that they can return old phones and accessories. Your service provider can also help you with cell phone disposal; in some regions of the world, companies are actually required to make recycling services available to their customers, so make sure to ask when you order replacement phones and accessories.

You can also donate old accessories, but you should be careful about how you do this. Some companies may do things like distributing the phones to victims of domestic violence and sexual assault, for example, allowing these people to call emergency services. If someone might be using your old phone, you should clear the memory and make sure that your service to that phone is turned off. Others may break down the phones and recycle the components, in which case you should ask about their environmental practices. In other instances, however, charities simply sell old electronics to larger companies that may not deal with them ethically; you do not want your donations to end up in a pile of electronic waste in a developing nation.

You can also take your phone to a recycler yourself. If you live in an urban community, your city may sponsor occasional e-waste surrender days, which allow you to bring in old cell phone accessories and other electronics for recycling. It is important to ask about how your city deals with this waste, and if staffers at the event are reluctant to tell you, inform them that using a reputable recycler is crucial to the success of such a program. In other instances, recyclers and refurbishers buy old items directly from the public, in which case you should again ask about their practices to ensure that their facility recycles responsibly.

Many cell phone providers offer ways to recycle old cell phone accessories.
Many cell phone providers offer ways to recycle old cell phone accessories.

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Discussion Comments


I always advocate donating the phones to victims of domestic violence, if possible. Also many places, like Target, have bins at the front of the stores where you can deposit your used cell phone equipment, as well as electronic items like iPads or mp3 players.

Since most cell phones that are not activated will still call 911 (in the USA), giving such a phone to a person who has been a victim of domestic violence could save a life.

You can probably call your local domestic violence shelter to ask if they have such a program available. If they don’t, they probably can direct you to such a program.

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