Many of your old phones and tablets are packed with components containing rare metals that are difficult to find and pull out of the ground. Once those components wind up in the landfill, there’s no easy way to recover them, so the limited supply we already have shrinks even further. Other kinds of e-waste, such as rechargeable batteries, often contain chemicals that could pose problems for the environment or human health, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. And gadgets that contain nonremovable batteries could start a fire if they, say, get crushed in a compactor.
The world generated 53.6 million metric tons of e-waste — comprising laptops, smartphones, electric toothbrushes, air conditioners and much more — in 2019, according to the Global E-Waste Statistics Partnership, an organization founded by the International Telecommunication Union, the United Nations University and others to track the growth of the problem. Less than a quarter of those castoff products were verifiably recycled. The rest, the report says, likely wound up being tossed into the trash or “exported as secondhand products or e-waste” to countries so they can decide on how to deal with it.
Managing the growing e-waste problem will take serious effort from tech companies and the governments that regulate them. But there are some important ways you can help, too — here are a few ways to repurpose and recycle some of the tech taking up space in your life.
Reuse your old tech
Rather than letting your old tech languish, consider finding a way to re-use it. Here are a few options that could give those gadgets a new lease on life, sorted by device type.
- Smart alarm clock: Apps such as “Alarm Clock for Me” can turn old iPhones and Android devices into helpful bedside clocks. And if those phones support always-on voice commands for Siri or Google Assistant, you could also use them to control some of your smart home gadgets without getting out of bed.
- Security camera: Apps such as Alfred can turn old phones into makeshift security cameras you can check remotely from your current phone or from the web.
- Smart TV remotes: Rokus and Apple TVs come with tiny remotes, and they’re very easy to lose track of around the living room. With the right apps, though, your old phone could become a remote for your media streaming device — and one you can type names of shows into, no less.
- Dedicated video call station: If your tablet has a half-decent front-facing camera, it might make for a decent video calling machine. Load it up with Zoom, Facebook Messenger or Skype and keep it on a countertop or your desk. Note: Much older tablets may struggle with this. If that’s the case, consider the following.
- Digital photo frame: You probably bought the tablet for its screen size, so put it to good use again by displaying your photos on it. Apple’s Photos app for iPads has a built-in tool to create looping slide shows from pictures in an album, and the Google Photos website lets you do the same on Android or Apple devices.
- Media server: If you have loads of home movies or legitimately acquired digital versions of films taking up hard drive space, there’s an easy way to get them running on your TV: put them all on an older computer (or an external hard drive connected to one) and install the media server app Plex. After a little setup, install the corresponding Plex app on your smart TV or streaming device, and you can watch all those classics on the big screen.
- Donate it: Some organizations accept donations of old computers for various causes. Your mileage will vary depending on where you live, but Digitunity is a helpful place to start: You can punch in your Zip code to see if nearby schools or nonprofit groups could benefit from your old hardware.
If your old gadgets run too slow for comfort, barely hold a charge or are in some way damaged, they might be past the point of being useful again. In that case, it’s time to consider recycling them. Just remember: Most old tech products, such as cameras, flip phones, mp3 players and more, shouldn’t go in the recycle bin any more than they should go in the trash. Instead, your quest to recycle responsibly should start here.
- Local programs: Many state and local governments offer guidance on what residents should do with their e-waste on their websites, and some operate sites where you can drop off old electronics to be recycled. You can also tap into databases like the one run by Earth 911 to find local recyclers that would be willing to accept aging and unusable tech for recycling.
- Big-box stores: Some of the same places where you purchased your tech will take them when they’re no longer usable. Best Buy lets you bring your aging tech into certain stores — from there, it gets sent to the company’s recycling partners, which will see if it can be repurposed before breaking it down. Staples’ recycling program works very similarly. Meanwhile, Office Depot and Office Max will sell you a box you can fill with old tech and bring it into a store for shipment and recycling by a third-party.
- Tech companies: In some cases, you can send old devices back to the companies that made them. Apple will accept its own products for recycling, and in some cases will give you a credit that can be applied to new purchases. The computer maker Dell — which shipped more than 12 million new PCs in the second quarter of 2021 — accepts shipments of old electronics of any brand to be recycled. That said, Dell’s track record with recycling isn’t completely free of blemishes.
What about batteries?
This is where things can get tricky, and a lot depends on what kind of batteries you’re trying to get rid of.
Because of what’s inside them, rechargeable batteries should never go in the trash — instead, they should always be taken to a facility where they can be handled responsibly. That’s also true of devices with rechargeable batteries that can’t be removed, like many modern smartphones.
Meanwhile, many municipalities allow you to toss single-use AAs and AAAs directly in the trash, but you may have other options available to you.
Figuring out exactly what those options are can be a little daunting, so here’s our advice: check out Call2Recycle.org. This organization offers a handy tool that lets you find places to drop off rechargeable batteries for recycling, and will even show stores or facilities that accept single-use batteries if that’s something your town supports. Earth 911, which we mentioned earlier, is also a great resource for finding local facilities and businesses that handle rechargeable and single-use batteries. And you can use both to find places where you can drop off old phones, whether they have removable batteries or not.