What is e-waste?

Old smartphones, laptops, TVs, or other devices become electronic waste (e-waste), which can harm our environment and health.

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Americans dispose of 416,000 cell phones per day, and only 15 to 20 percent of electronic waste is recycled.
Justin Smith

Right to Repair Intern, U.S. PIRG Education Fund

Do you have a closet or basement full of old electronics that you’re not sure what to do with? Well, if you get rid of those old smartphones, laptops, TVs or other devices, they become electronic waste (e-waste), which can harm our environment and health. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency defines e-waste  as “used electronics that are nearing the end of their useful life and are discarded, donated, or given to a recycler.” But don’t worry:  There are plenty of ways to responsibly dispose of these devices and even give them new lives.

The harmful effects of e-waste

Despite making up less than 2% of the U.S. waste stream, e-waste is responsible for two-thirds of heavy metals in landfills. That’s why it’s essential to dispose of electronics responsibly.

In the United States alone, we generate about 6.9 million tons of e-waste each year.  The World Economic Forum estimates that globally, we will produce around 81.6 million tons of e-waste yearly by 2030 and our recycling rate in 2021 was at 17.4%.

These materials are difficult to recycle properly. For starters, there’s a lack of infrastructure and regulation around e-waste recycling. Additionally, e-waste can contain hazardous materials such as the heavy metals lead and mercury, which require special handling to avoid releasing them into the environment.

What can we do about e-waste?

How can we reduce the amount of e-waste and properly dispose of what we have? The first priority should be to reuse as much as possible. 

If it works, sell it

If your device works, it has value. A number of electronics sellers refurbish used electronics. Many manufacturers and retailers, including Amazon, Best Buy, Gazelle, phone makers such as Apple or Samsung, and more, have refurbishing programs. For example, when I put my older phone’s specifications into Gazelle, it offered me $75. Before you sell a device, however, you should wipe your personal data off it to protect your privacy. You can find instructions online. Responsible refurbishers will erase your data, but it’s best to do it yourself to be sure. 

Donate it to someone who can use it.

If you have functioning electronics that you no longer need, consider donating them to a local organization. It’s a great way to support your local community while keeping electronics out of landfills. Many nonprofits, schools and community centers accept used electronics. For example, Free Geek in Portland, Oregon, gives away and sells at a deep discount refurbished computers, phones & electronics. You can also use larger national programs, such as the partnership between Dell and Goodwill, the World Computer Exchange, or Cell Phones for Soldiers

Recycle e-waste

If your electronics are truly at the end of their useful life, be sure to recycle them responsibly. Look for local electronic recycling centers that will safely dispose of your devices and extract any valuable materials for reuse. Some companies that sell electronics, including Best Buy and Staples, will also recycle broken electronics for you, and your local hardware store will probably take old lightbulbs and batteries (though you should ask them, first). 

Reducing the harmful effects of e-waste

Protecting your electronics to extend their lifespan is key to reducing e-waste. Use durable cases, follow best practices to keep batteries going, replace batteries when they wear out and avoid exposing your devices to extreme temperatures or moisture.

E-waste may be a growing problem, but we all have the power to make a difference. By reusing, donating, and recycling our electronics responsibly, we can help reduce the harmful effects of e-waste and protect our planet for generations to come.


Justin Smith

Right to Repair Intern, U.S. PIRG Education Fund

Lucas Gutterman

Director, Designed to Last Campaign, U.S. PIRG Education Fund

Lucas leads PIRG’s Designed to Last campaign, fighting against planned obsolescence and e-waste and winning concrete policy changes that extend electronic consumer product lifespans, hold manufacturers accountable for forcing upgrades or disposal, and advance paradigm-busting conversations around electronic products. He got his start as a PIRG student volunteer and organizing director where he helped register thousands of voters and win zero waste campaigns to stop plastic pollution. He lives in Brooklyn, New York, with his partner, where he enjoys perfecting his espresso recipe.

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