Many of your old phones and tablets are filled with components containing rare metals that are hard to find and remove from the ground. Once these components end up in the landfill, there is no easy way to retrieve them, so the limited supply we already have dwindles even further. Other types of electronic waste, such as rechargeable batteries, often contain chemicals that could pose problems for the environment or human health, according to Environmental Protection Agency. And gadgets that contain non-removable batteries could start a fire if they, for example, are crushed in a compactor.
The generated world 53.6 million tonnes of electronic waste – including laptops, smartphones, electric toothbrushes, air conditioners and more – in 2019, according to the Global E-Waste Statistics Partnership, an organization founded by the International Telecommunications Union, the United Nations University United and others to track the growth of the problem. Less than a quarter of these rejected products were verifiably recycled. The rest, according to the report, likely ended up being thrown away or “exported as second-hand goods or e-waste” to countries so they could decide how to deal with them.
Managing the growing e-waste problem will require serious efforts from tech companies and the governments that regulate them. But there are also important ways to help – here are some ways to reuse and recycle some of the technology that’s taking up space in your life.
Rather than letting your old technology languish, consider finding a way to reuse it. Here are some options that could breathe new life into these gadgets, sorted by device type.
- Smart alarm clock: Apps like “Alarm Clock for Me” can turn old iPhones and Android devices into useful bedside clocks. And while these phones support always-on voice commands for Siri or Google Assistant, you can also use them to control some of your smart home gadgets without getting out of bed.
- Security camera: Apps like Alfred can turn old phones into makeshift security cameras that you can check remotely from your current phone or from the web.
- Smart TV remotes: Rokus and Apple TVs come with tiny remote controls and it’s very easy to lose sight of them in the living room. With the right apps, though, your old phone could become a remote control for your media streaming device — and a remote you can type show names into, no less.
- Dedicated video call station: If your tablet has a half-decent front-facing camera, this could make for a decent video-calling machine. Charge it with Zoom, Facebook Messenger or Skype and keep it on a counter or on your desk. Note: Much older tablets may struggle with this. If so, consider the following.
- Digital Photo Frame: You probably bought the tablet for its screen size, so put it to good use by displaying your photos on it. Apple’s Photos app for iPad has a built-in tool for creating looping slideshows from images in an album, and the Google Photos website lets you do the same on Android or Apple devices.
- Media server: If you have a lot of home movies or digital versions of legitimately acquired movies taking up space on your hard drive, there’s an easy way to get them working on your TV: put them all on an old computer (or a external hard drive connected to one) and install the Plex media server app. 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: Some organizations accept donations of old computers for various causes. Your mileage will vary depending on where you live, but Digitity is a useful starting point: you can enter your ZIP code to see if nearby schools or nonprofit groups could benefit from your old hardware.
If your old gadgets are running too slowly for comfort, barely holding a charge, or damaged in some way, they might no longer be useful. If so, it’s time to consider recycling them. Remember: most old tech products, such as cameras, flip phones, MP3 players, and more, shouldn’t go in the trash any more than they should. Instead, your quest for responsible recycling should start here.
- Local programs: Many state and local governments offer advice on what residents should do with their e-waste on their websites, and some operate sites where you can drop off old electronics for recycling. You can also tap into databases like the one run by Earth 911 find local recyclers willing to accept aging and unusable technology for recycling.
- Big box stores: Some of the same places you bought your tech from will take them when they are no longer usable. best buy lets you take your aging tech to select stores – from there, it’s sent to the company’s recycling partners, who will see if it can be reused before breaking it down. Staples’ recycling program works in a very similar way. Meanwhile, Office Depot and Office Max will sell you a box that you can fill with old technology and take it to a store for shipping and third-party recycling.
- Technology companies: In some cases, you can return old devices to the companies that made them. Apple will accept its own products for recycling and, in some cases, give you a credit that can be applied to new purchases. The Dell computer manufacturer — which shipped more than 12 million new PCs in the second quarter of 2021 — is accepting shipments of old electronics of all brands for recycling. That said, Dell’s recycling track record is not completely free from defects.
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 they contain, rechargeable batteries should never be thrown in the trash. Instead, they should always be brought to a facility where they can be handled responsibly. This is also true for devices with rechargeable batteries that cannot be removed, such as many modern smartphones.
Meanwhile, many municipalities allow you to throw 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 bit 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 city 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 to drop off your old phones, whether or not they have removable batteries.