How to reuse, salvage and recycle electronics you can’t use anymore.
Electronic waste can pose health and safety risks if you don’t dispose of it properly. There are two options for responsible, sustainable disposal of electronics: reuse or recycle. Reusing your old computers or tablets or their parts is not only the most environmentally-friendly option, it can help address a major shortfall in needed devices.
If it Works, Reuse it
Option 1: 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 like Apple or Samsung, and more, have refurbishing programs. For example, when I put my older phone’s specifications in Gazelle, it offered me $75. Before you sell off a device, however, you should wipe 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.
Option 2: Donate used electronics to people who could use them.
Small non-profits across the country rehab and either sell or donate used devices to people who need them — from students to soldiers. You can find local non-profits by searching “electronics donation near me.” You can check Impact Recyclers to see if it serves your area; it represents certified electronics recyclers who employ people facing significant barriers to work.
If it Doesn’t Work, Reuse Parts or Recycle It
If products don’t work, valuable components in the device still can usually be salvaged and used for future repairs. If you find a donation center near you, check to see if it can reuse the parts.
Reusing even a few parts makes a better environmental impact than recycling. Think about it: Recycling is energy intensive and comes with its own carbon footprint. Since e-waste is hazardous and contains heavy metals such as lead, mercury and cadmium, recycling it is dangerous and toxic, even in formal recycling facilities. The best thing for the environment is to find ways to reuse the product or its parts. But if you can’t, recycling is your next option.
Whatever you do, don’t put electronics — especially anything with the battery still inside — in the normal waste stream. Batteries have been known to cause fires in waste facilities and landfills. Look for the “wheelie bin” icon on your device. That signifies that it must be recycled in an e-waste facility, according to EU law.
Many cities and towns have special protocols for electronic waste – visit your municipality’s or state’s website to learn more about e-waste protocol. For example, Boston holds drop-off recycling events for household electronics throughout the year. Certain kinds of electronic waste – appliances, batteries and light bulbs – aren’t always accepted at general municipal waste drives, but cities will often have special drives and locations for these harder-to-recycle items.
Some companies that sell electronics, including Best Buy and Staples, will also recycle broken electronics for you. Other companies such as Big Sky Recycling allow you to ship them your phones and tablets to be recycled. For a longer list of certified recyclers, you can view Sustainable Electronics Recycling International’s map. For information on battery recycling options, visit Call2Recycle.
Doing the right thing with old electronics is important, but it’s harder than it should be. Many people don’t know how to handle old electronics, and there are many barriers to repair, highlighted by our Right to Repair work. In addition to being a good steward of your devices, you can join U.S. PIRG in advocating for a better system for all electronic waste.
Senior Director, Campaign for the Right to Repair, PIRG
Nathan leads U.S. PIRG’s Right to Repair campaign, working to pass legislation that will prevent companies from blocking consumers’ ability to fix their own electronics. Nathan lives in Arlington, Massachusetts, with his wife and two children.