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Cell Phone Recycling: Donate Your Old Mobile Phone

by Michelle Sawyer and Beth Hering
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Discarded cell phones account for about 19,500 tons of waste discarded each year. Cell phone recycling is critical because each improperly disposed cell phone can pollute up to 132,000 liters of water.

With new features available every year or even less often, a cell phone's average life is now less than 18 months, adding more than 140 million cell phones (and their batteries) to our landfills each year — or 2.5 million toxic mobile phones dumped each week. These discarded phones can release hazardous lead, mercury, cadmium, brominated flame retardants, and arsenic into the environment. Because the United States has yet to establish federal regulations requiring mobile phone recycling, only about 11 percent of cell phones are currently being donated or recycled.

The good news is that mobile phone manufacturers have recognized the need for cell phone recycling, stepping up their efforts to stop this enormous threat to the environment. National mobile phone carriers have instigated mobile phone recycling take-back plans, accepting unwanted cell phones at any of their retail locations nationwide. (See individual carriers such as AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, and Verizon Wireless for more information.) 

Even without a wireless service plan, donated cell phones are reusable because any working mobile phone can dial a 911 call center (an FCC requirement). As a result, recycled cell phones can be used as emergency lifelines for:

  • senior centers
  • senior citizens living alone, who are especially vulnerable to accidents
  • senior citizens with disabilities and limited incomes, who are especially vulnerable to elder abuse (physical abuse, assault, exploitation, or neglect.)

Recycled cell phones are also an important emergency link for women's shelters. Donated cell phones could save a life by enabling victims of domestic violence with instant access to emergency services.

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Before donating your mobile phone, erase any stored information, including your contact list, text messages, and listings of incoming/outgoing numbers. Most cell phones use a "master reset" to delete information quickly and easily. (If you’d like help for your specific model, see RecycleMyCell's data eraser helper.) Remove your phone’s SIM card (sometimes called a mini hard disk or removable memory card), if it has one. Phones that operate on GSM (Global System for Mobile Communication) networks use SIM cards. If you are not sure if your phone uses a SIM card or if you need assistance removing it, contact your wireless provider. Lastly, verify that your account has been cancelled by your service provider.

Cell Phone Recycling

Cell phones that are too old to be refurbished or reused should go to a recycling center to keep poisonous mercury, lead and other dangerous toxins from harming the environment. Batteries, plastics, and other components will be disposed of according to EPA guidelines.

Stores such as Radio Shack, Best Buy, Home Depot, Lowes, Office Depot, and Staples offer mobile phone recycling centers, where you can simply toss your unwanted mobile phone into their in-store "recycling bin" or take them to customer service.

Exchanging your old cell phone when you upgrade is the easiest way to recycle, but if you have a mobile phone or two in a drawer at home, Call 2 Recycle can give you the location of your nearest cell phone recycling center.

Cell Phone Donation

The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence works with ReCellular to collect and refurbish old cell phones. See the organization’s site for free mailing labels and information on how to organize a cell phone collection drive. HopeLine from Verizon also collects phones for women’s shelters.

Help Operation Gratitude raise money to send care packages to U.S. soldiers. The organization receives up to $150 or more for every cell phone collected. Sending in an old phone is easy – just package it up and attach a free mailing label. Another organization that collects unwanted phones to help our military men and women is Cell Phones for Soldiers.

More information about cell phone recycling and donation is available from GRC Wireless Recycling, Charitable Recycling, and Recycling for Charities

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