Many old cell phones lined up

We love our devices—our TVs, laptops, tablets, and perhaps most of all, our mobile phones, those pocket-sized miracles of computing power. In fact, Gartner, a tech research company, estimates that more than 1.5 billion cell phones will ship in 2021. That’s around 1 for every 5 people alive.

But unless they're traded in for a new device, each of those gadgets eventually reaches the end of its useful life and becomes electronic waste. And that's a problem. A United Nations study reported that 53.6 million tons of e-waste was discarded in 2019, and only 17.4 percent of it was disposed of properly.

On Earth Day (April 22)—and every other day—consumers can do something to reduce their e-waste footprint, though. Many of the materials used in making these products can be recovered and reused, including plastics, glass, metal, and aluminum. Apple, for example, says its 13-inch MacBook Air with Retina display contains over 40 percent recycled content (PDF).

More Ways to Go Green

But electronics can also contain toxic substances such as lead, mercury, and cadmium, which must be disposed of carefully. So far, 25 states have passed laws requiring people to recycle old electronics. But no matter where you live, there are safe methods for disposal.

First, make sure to completely erase all personal information. It usually isn’t as simple as deleting files. Here's how to get your personal data off a laptop, for example. Once that's done, here are your options.

1. Take It to a Recycler

Plenty of nonprofit organizations and local communities offer options to help you recycle old electronics. One group, Call2Recycle, offers drop-off locations for rechargeable batteries and cell phones all over the U.S. To find a location, just enter your ZIP code at Call2Recycle.org.

Access may be limited due to concerns about COVID-19, so before leaving home, be sure to contact the drop-off location to confirm it's open and accepting recyclables.

You can also look for local options by entering your ZIP code and the product you want to recycle at the Computer Technology Association’s Recycle Locator or Earth911’s extensive recycling database. Earth911 offers assistance by phone at 800-CLEANUP, too.

For more options, or to learn how e-waste gets recycled, consult Sustainable Electronics Recycling International, which lists facilities certified for electronic recycling.

2. Donate It

If your used gadget still works—or, in many cases, even if it doesn’t—there’s probably a charity or nonprofit out there that would be happy to take it off your hands. You can start by checking local organizations for older people and recreation centers. Make sure to get a receipt so that you can deduct your donation on next year's tax return. Here are a few other programs that can help you get your old devices to people who need them. 

  • Dell Reconnect is a partnership with Goodwill that accepts any brand of computer as well as “just about anything that can be connected to a computer,” according to the website. You can drop off used devices at participating Goodwill locations around the country.
  • The World Computer Exchange is on a mission to diminish the digital divide in developing countries and to promote the reuse of and proper recycling of electronics. It provides used computers, peripherals, and many other types of gadgets to communities around the world.
  • eBay for Charity lets you sell your used devices (or anything else, actually) and donate part or all of the proceeds to a charity of your choosing.

3. Take It to a Tech Firm

Many electronics manufacturers and retailers offer robust recycling programs. A chart at the Environmental Protection Agency’s website lets you search programs by product or company. The following are just a few of the many programs that allow consumers to recycle old electronics. Check your brand’s or retailer’s company website for details on its program.

  • Amazon offers gift cards for just about any kind of electronics device, as well as music CDs and video games. Some items may be eligible for limited time, promotional credit toward a new qualifying Amazon device.
  • Apple's GiveBack program offers up to $1,530 in gift cards or in-store credit for qualifying products. The company will also accept and recycle any product that doesn't qualify.
  • Best Buy offers recycling options for a wide range of electronics, no matter where you bought them.
  • Office Depot and Staples offer rewards program members store credit of $2 per printer cartridge (with some restrictions) for up to 10 or 20 cartridges per month, respectively. Most printer manufacturers, including HPEpson, and Canon, also have their own recycling programs.
  • Sprint’s Buyback program offers account credits for mobile phones from any carrier. For specific details on other phone programs, check the manufacturer's website.

5 Things to Always Recycle

We love our planet, right? Then let’s stop trashing it. On the "Consumer 101" TV show, Consumer Reports reveals the five items you should always recycle rather than toss into the trash bin.