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Chelsea Zero Waste: what to do with old cell phones

By Christine Schultz

Christine Schultz is a Chelsea High School alum (2016) and recent graduate of the University of Michigan (2020), where she studied environmental science, statistics, and German. She has a passion for the environment, especially when it comes to reducing unnecessary waste.

This article is adapted from her thesis, “Reducing E-Waste on Campus: An investigation of cell phone replacement and disposal among university students.” She presented her research to the Chelsea Zero Waste Coalition during their May meeting. If you missed Part I of Christine’s research, check it out here. 

If you’re like the majority of people, you probably have an old cell phone lying around at home in a drawer somewhere.

Most people end up keeping their old phone due to a lack of knowledge on how to properly dispose of it, worries about their personal information or data being on the phone, or a desire to keep it as a backup.

The issue with keeping your phone is that phones contain extremely valuable elements that, when recycled properly, can be reused in other electronic devices to help mitigate the impact cell phones have on the rare elements of the Earth. Oftentimes, if a phone is still in good working condition, or not too broken, the phone can be fixed up and reused.

Stockpiling, recycling, and reusing are all better for the environment than throwing the phone away in the trash, because not only do phones have rare elements but they also contain very toxic elements as well that can leach into the environment and even our air and groundwater when not disposed of properly.

In the rest of this article I will address some good ways to get rid of your old phone properly, as well as some concerns about personal data on phones and how you can handle it.

First off, depending on where you live, doing a quick google search on ways to recycle your old phone will get you started in the right direction, but here I will try to create a comprehensive list with more local ways to dispose of your phone.

Secondly, if your old phone is still even slightly usable, before you look into how to recycle it, it might be worth a shot to list it on an online platform such as nextdoor, facebook marketplace, ebay, or craigslist, because that way the phone has a chance at a second life.

Charity Organizations

Each of these charities has a different mission and a different end goal for what they will do with your old phone, so if a cause really speaks to you, it would be worth it to check them out and ship them your old phone.

Secure the Call

Cell Phones for Soldiers

Second Wave Recycling

NCADV Phone Donations

Medic Mobile

Recycling in Washtenaw County

Recycle Ann Arbor has a Drop-Off Station and Recovery Yard that accepts old broken phones, but does not accept phones that are still working.

University of Michigan Computer Showcase is a great place to trade in a phone for some store credit. They will take a lot of other electronic devices too and will give you a quote for how much it’s worth online. They will take phones that are broken or still working.

Washtenaw County Clean-Up Days is a service that was supposed to be in Chelsea on April 25, but was cancelled due to COVID-19, however this could be a great resource to keep an eye on for their next recycling event, at which you can turn in your old phone.

Recycling Nationwide

The following are companies found around the US, however there is also at least one store for each company found in Ann Arbor, as well as some in Howell and Jackson, so these resources should be easily accessible for those who are local.

Apple will only take apple devices as of now, but often you can trade in your old phone for cash or credit toward a new one.

Office Depot allows you to trade in your phone, as well as other electronics, online or in store and possibly get some money for them. You can get a quote in store or online.

Best Buy offers in-store and online trade-ins of phones but will also take phones that are broken and not worth anything to be recycled. You can get a quote from them online.

Staples offers in-store recycling at any location for free.

T-Mobile offers trade-in for credit towards a new phone on all eligible phones (many service providers offer trade-in credit only for their own phones) and T-Mobile also offers a recycling program where they will take any make or model of cell phone and recycle it if you bring it to a store. They also have a great market for pre-owned and refurbished phones if you are interested in helping phones be reused and have a second life.

Verizon, like most service providers, offers a trade-in program for eligible Verizon phones in return for credit toward a new device.

Reminder that a lot of these services might be impacted by COVID-19 and may not allow in-store trade-in or drop-off at this time. Otherwise, many of these companies will make shipping the phone from your home free and easy. Usually they’ll ship you a box to put it in, and you just have to ship it back for free. 

Privacy and personal information concerns:

Some people have concerns about their personal information, personal data, and/or photos from their old phone either being lost for good or not kept private when they go to recycle their old phone, which is a valid concern that can be worked around.

All phones contain a sim card, and that sim card is where your personal data is held. Most phones that aren’t smartphones (and some smartphones) have easily accessible sim cards that you can remove prior to recycling your phone, which will keep your information on the sim card, but won’t be deleted or in the hands of a stranger.

However, if you wish to simply delete all the info off your old phone, go into the settings and reset the phone by selecting to erase all content.

Do make sure to back up your photos and anything else you would like to save onto another device before clearing your phone. If your phone is broken and you’re not able to do this factory reset, you can’t figure out how to reset it, you can’t find the sim card, or you just need help with transferring the data off of your phone – most tech companies such as Best Buy or T-Mobile have people in store to help you with making sure your personal data is secure before you give it to them for recycling.

You just have to let them know that it is a concern of yours and they should be able to help you.

I hope this article has been helpful in increasing your knowledge on things that you can do with any old phones you may have at home. By recycling, trading in, reusing, or repurposing your old phone, rather than letting it sit in a drawer, you’re helping to create a cleaner world, as well as clearing up some drawer space at home.

The Chelsea Zero Waste Coalition thanks Christine Schultz for sharing her research and time with us. We encourage all cell phone users to consider the end-of-life of their cell phones, as well as the frequency with which they replace their cell phones. Check out two questions from Christine’s survey to help you in reflecting upon your cell phone consumption. 

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