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How to Recycle Electronics, from Old Phones to Laptops

Instead of throwing away old phones, laptops, and other items, learn how to recycle electronics so they don't wind up in landfills.

Written by
Esther Abisola Omole

Today's technology has equipped us with a set of new rules: no matter how recent a model is, it’s rendered old when a new version appears.

Most phone and laptop companies dictate that to stay informed, present, and up-to-date, we should continuously update our equipment as new models are released. But what does this idealized consumer-manufacturer pair do with all of their older models?

Electronic waste, or e-waste, is a term used to describe consumer and business electronic equipment that's close to the end of its useful life. Virtually any disposed-of product with a battery or plug qualifies, and it adds up: The world generated 53.6 metric tonnes of electronic waste in 2019. Of that, only 17% was recovered and subsequently recycled.

Unfortunately, e-waste that isn’t recycled can contribute to global CO2 emissions. These materials also leach toxic materials into the environment, which the EPA says can expose people to high levels of contaminants that threaten their health. E-waste is an environmental justice issue as well. Discarded electronics—mainly from Western Europe and the United States—consistently end up in communities that aren't equipped to process it, which exposes members to the toxins present in unprocessed e-waste.

For example, a large scrapyard in Accra, Ghana, is home to millions of old laptops, cameras, and other electronic devices. It's just one of many sites that have become a hotspot of hazardous waste for the workers and communities in the surrounding area.

The sheer size and impact of e-waste can make it feel like an insurmountable issue, but learning how to recycle electronics can help. First, check with your local waste facilities to ensure they have the capacity to collect the electronic items you plan to recycle. You may need to visit different sites for different electronics. Then, learn how to recycle four of the most common electronics below.

How to Recycle Electronics

Before looking into how to recycle electronics, first consider donation. Organizations like the World Computer Exchange offer a tax receipt if you mail in or drop off your computers, scanners, webcams, and other items. There's also Dell Reconnect, which works with Goodwill to repair old tech products and redistribute them to communities in need of devices.

If donating isn't an option, here's how to go about recycling the most common types of electronics.

1. Computers and Accessories

It's highly unlikely that your curbside recycling bin accepts computers. Luckily, when you're ready to recycle, retailers like Staples and Best Buy will take your laptops, desktops, keyboards, mice, and speakers to recycle at no cost. Just be aware that there's a limit: Staples allows seven items to be recycled per customer per day, and Best Buy allows three items per household per day.

2. Cell Phones

Good news! Cell phones have the highest recycling market of any other electronic. Unfortunately, according to the EPA, we only recycle 10% of our phones in the United States.

There are many ways to trade in and recycle your phone. Staples and Best Buy both accept cell phone donations. You can also take them to retail locations that participate in Call2Recycle. Lastly, browse the EPA's website, which offers an extensive list of manufacturers that offer recycling services.

3. Televisions

If you've been itching to get rid of your old, outdated TV, proceed with caution. These outdated models contain harmful, toxic parts (and chemicals) that require careful recycling. TVs that are left in landfills leach chemicals into the ground and air, so ensuring they don't end up there is critical.

Because of their toxic nature, televisions can be tricky to recycle. Best Buy recycles TVs at a cost of $30 each in order to ensure each is properly and safely recycled. You can also find other recycling options in your area by using Earth911's locator tool, which allows you to search by product type and zip code.

4. Cameras and Camcorders

The last place your old camera should wind up is in a trash pile. Cameras and their batteries, much like TVs, contain nasty environmental toxins. Because of that, it's important to dispose of them properly. Best Buy accepts cameras and camcorders, as well as accessories like lenses and memory cards, for free recycling. Staples accepts cameras and camcorders.