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How To Recycle Electronics the Right Way, According to Experts

Because you shouldn't just dump your old tech in the trash.

<p>Daniel Grizelj/Getty Images</p>

Daniel Grizelj/Getty Images

We all know (hopefully!) that we shouldn’t just toss an old phone in the garbage. The trouble is it’s not like there’s a weekly pick-up service for old electronics like there is for household trash and recycling. That leaves it on us, as consumers, to figure out what to do with our electronics once they’ve outlived their usefulness (besides let them accumulate in a drawer somewhere, that is!). And while there’s no one-size-fits-all solution, there are options. We talked to experts for the lowdown on how to recycle electronics properly.

Related: How to Recycle 8 Things You Can't Just Toss in the Recycling Bin



Meet Our Expert

  • Carol Handwerker, Professor of Materials Engineering and Professor of Environmental and Ecological Engineering at Purdue University

  • Steven Napoli, President and CEO of TERRA, The Electronics Reuse & Recycling Alliance



Why Recycle Electronics?

It's important to first go over why we should be thoughtful about how we dispose of old tech and both experts say we’re quite literally saving the environment when we recycle old electronics. Did you know there’s gold in electronics? Especially in cell phones, says Handwerker. Old electronics actually contain a number of valuable elements like silver, palladium, and platinum. “Essentially, rare earth elements that need to be recovered, and if they're not and simply go into the trash, they're lost forever,” Napoli says.

Now, we as individuals can’t exactly extract these elements from a phone. “But if we give them to companies that do that kind of recycling, it does two things,” Handwerker says. “First of all, the companies can separate and resell some materials in electronics when they have thousands of cell phones and computers to process at one time." The second is gold is one of the most environmentally damaging extraction mining processes, and so you're actually helping the environment by sending your phones and other electronics to a reputable recycler. At the same time, they're also helping to put these materials back into circulation—back into electronics or jewelry. "You're actually saving your environment in a tangible way," she adds.

Napoli agrees. “Unfortunately, a lot of the materials used in electronics are harvested in places and by people that shouldn't be doing it.” What’s more, he adds, “70% of all of our toxic waste that is going into our landfills and illegal dump sites is coming from our electronics. And that's because they're filled with things like lead, arsenic, and plastic components that are fire resistant because they're infused with chemicals.” Those chemicals are “potentially dangerous to human health when they get out to the environment,” he says.

What Types of Electronics Can Be Recycled?

The good news is a lot of our old gadgets are able to be recycled. “Traditional devices that people use every day,” Napoli says, “can be processed and recovered.” Some 95% of the materials in those items is recoverable as long as it's done efficiently, he says. That means our phones, laptops, tablets, and computers—even appliances like televisions are all contenders for an e-waste recycling program, along with many other devices and gadgets.

How to Prepare Electronics for Recycling

Of course our lives are often in our devices, which means there are some precautions to take before recycling. “You’ve got personal data on devices,” Napoli says. “That's not something that users want to get out into the world. So making sure that your material is recycled responsibly also means that your data is destroyed.”

While some programs will handle that task for you, for the most peace of mind, be sure to first back up your data if it’s not already in the cloud or safely stored on another device. Then, wipe it. “The factory reset functionality is actually very good in terms of protecting us,” Napoli says. (But for good measure, double check that everything is in fact gone before sending it off into the wild!)

Related: How to Clean Out Your Phone

Recycling Options

Here’s where things can seem overwhelming. There’s no one overarching program for recycling electronics, Napoli says. “Twenty five states have something on the books about e-waste, 25 states don’t. So there's no consistency.” What’s more, the United States is one of a handful of countries that has not signed on to the [UN program] Basel Convention for the handling of electronic waste,” he says. So “countries like the United States are just taking our end of life material and dumping it on a third party country that can't handle it.”

To be sure e-waste is being recycled in a sustainable way, it’s important to work with a program with an EPA recognized certification. The two prominent ones, he explains, are e-Stewards and R2.

The takeaway from both experts is that it can take a bit of looking to find the best local option. A good starting point is your local government website. They may point you to organizations such as TERRA or local recycling centers that may offer e-waste programs as well as special events. Napoli and Handwerker also suggested looking for retailers with recycling programs, with Best Buy and Staples a couple of examples that will accept electronics—ranging from that ancient iPod to your latest Apple watch—purchased anywhere. Some manufacturers also offer take-back programs, they said, Apple and Google among them.

And, remember that often electronics can be repaired, Handwerker says. If it’s a matter of, say, a broken screen, there’s likely a local store that can fix it and help you keep it in use (and save some money versus buying a new one!).

Donating Electronics

While our six-model old phones are about as useful as a brick, electronics in good working condition may still have some life left in them. When it comes to non-profits, “in general they don't want it unless it's within a couple of years old,” Handwerker says. So if it’s still fairly recent, it’s worth checking with local organizations like schools and shelters. Even if they don’t use them as functioning devices, they may use the money they make recycling them to fund their programs. Goodwill also accepts some electronics.

Tips for Responsible Electronics Disposal

While not all electronics are not recyclable, it’s still important to dispose of them properly. That’s especially true when we’re talking about potentially hazardous materials like those in lithium ion batteries, which can cause fires, Handwerker says. Many of the programs we’ve mentioned that offer recycling can also handle hazardous disposal, so check with them before tossing those items in the trash.

Related: Wishcycling Is Hurting Your Recycling Efforts—Here's How to Fix It

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