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Here's what to do with your old smartphone when you get a new one

Your old phones and laptops can still make you money and reduce the burden on the environment, too.
Written by Jada Jones, Associate Editor
Monument of e-waste molded to look like the leaders of the top 7 e-waste producing countries
Image: Getty Images

Buying a new smartphone, tablet, laptop, or smartwatch can be fun. But once you've set up your new device, you might be looking at your old device and wondering what to do with it.

Should you add it to the junk drawer where all your other old devices and charging cables go when you lose interest? Should you see if a family member has use for it? 

First, here's what not to do: never dispose of your device in your household garbage. Not only will you send your device straight to a landfill and pollute the environment with the potentially toxic metals found in your device, but in some states and countries, you will be breaking the law, too.

What to do before buying a new electronic device

Many people upgrade their devices on a regular basis as tech companies announce a lineup of new devices every year. But usually it's unnecessary to upgrade your device that frequently, as more current devices typically only offer one or two minor upgrades. 

If you've only had your current device for a year or two, consider holding onto it for another year or two if it's still functioning. Think about what you actually need from the device, and whether you'll actually use the new features being offered.

Also: The best green phones: Sustainable and eco-friendly smartphones

If your issue with your current device is aesthetics, consider buying a new case or revamping your device's home and lock screen. Some apps can completely change your device's home and lock screen appearance, offering more personalized widgets and icons. If it's a PC or laptop you are thinking about, it might be possible to upgrade your existing model with new components. 

When you see a shiny new device, step away from it, and sleep on your decision to buy it. You might find that you've changed your mind.

Before you sell: Is there another option?

Re-use is key way of cutting waste. Just because you don't want your phone or laptop any more, that doesn't mean it's without options. Does is make a useful starter device for someone else in your family? For those family members who don't need to be at the cutting edge of tech, an older model might be a fine option. Beware, however, of dumping your old kit on others if it's too slow or too out of date. They won't thank you for it.

Another option is alternative re-use: can your phone find a second life as a video camera or a standalone GPS device, for example? 

What to do before selling your electronics

If you've just spent hundreds of dollars on a new device, it might be nice to put some extra cash back in your pocket. Many online vendors will buy your old device and refurbish it for someone else to use.

But before you put your device up for sale, you should wipe it clean of any personal documents or information. It's also good to back up your data on an external hard drive. 

You can opt to sell your device on online marketplaces or use online platforms that will buy your device, give you cash, and resell, refurbish, or recycle your device for you.

Online resellers typically send you a free shipping label for your device. They will then inspect your device's condition and determine how much money you can receive from it. After that, you're off the hook.

Some online vendors will give you a small amount of money for devices in poor condition and recycle that device's viable parts. 

What to do before recycling your electronics

Like selling your device, you should remove personal information before letting it go. You can recycle your devices at almost any place where you can purchase electronics. If you can remove your device's batteries, take them out, as they have to be disposed of separately.

But most cell phones, laptops, and tablets have rechargeable batteries that cannot be removed, so make sure you know your device's battery. 

You can use databases like Earth911 or Call2Recycle to locate a drop-off location and find out which devices that site accepts.

Amazon, Apple, Best Buy, and mobile carriers will take your old devices and dispose of them adequately. These companies offer trade-in programs where you can trade your old device for a credit towards your new device. 

Also: How to trade in your old tech for Amazon gift cards

And according to Liam Howley, chief marketing officer at Decluttr, there is a strategy for trading in your devices.

"It's important to trade in your tech as soon as it starts to depreciate to maximize its trade-in value and keep tech out of landfills," he says.

He also suggests buying a refurbished phone when you are due for an upgrade. Refurbished phones are a greener alternative to brand-new phones, as they reduce the waste created to make new phones.

"Make sure you do so with a reputable retailer who can offer high-standard quality checks, certified refurbished products, and a money-back guarantee," he says.

Why you should reduce, reuse, and recycle electronics

Tech is all about novelty and the coolest new thing. But there are consequences to our upgrade culture. Since electronic devices have become a staple in our lives, we've created massive amounts of e-waste. According to the United Nations, the world generated 53.5 million tons of e-waste in 2019. The UN also reported that only 17.4% of the 53.5 million tons were recycled. 

There are precious metals in your devices, such as gold, silver, copper, platinum, and palladium. And in the US, $7.49 billion worth of those metals are thrown away in landfills. When you recycle your device, you allow those metals to power another device, reducing the waste created. 

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, 35,000 pounds of copper, 772 pounds of silver, 75 pounds of gold, and 33 pounds of palladium can be retrieved and reused for every one million cell phones recycled

Break the stigma and consider refurbished

The exponential increase in e-waste is a reason to consider recycling and properly disposing of your electronics -- and a reason to consider buying refurbished tech. You can purchase high-quality devices at lower prices, all while helping the environment.

Howley cites environmental awareness and growing economic uncertainty as reasons for more people buying refurbished devices. From 2017 to 2022, he says Decluttr saw a 535% increase in the demand for refurbished devices. And he indicates that Gen Z manufactured the uptick in demand for second-hand items, as the craze for "thrifting" became an indicator of coolness.

"Second hand is no longer seen as second rate, and it is becoming ever more popular, particularly with the younger consumer. For example, according to a WGSN insight survey, 50% of Gen Z now see second hand as a status symbol," Howley says.

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