We've all been guilty of it. We jump at the opportunity to buy that shiny new smartphone and toss the old one aside, whether that be in a junk drawer, in a box in the closet, or (heaven forbid) in the trash can. While holding on to that old tech probably won't hurt anybody or anything for now, it's certainly not helping anyone either. And don't get me started on throwing away e-waste into landfills.
You may have heard of the "3 Rs" when talking about the environment. As a refresher, the 3 Rs refers to a shortcut to help us remember to Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle. Selling your old devices can contribute towards reducing e-waste in landfills as well as providing a way to reuse old and unwanted gadgets. When a device cannot be resold or reused, there is always the third (and least-preferred) option to recycle it.
More and more people are turning to trade-in or buyback programs, or they're selling their devices to others on their own through a third party or auction site. But if and when you (hopefully) do decide to send in your phone to one of these resellers or recyclers, just what exactly happens to that device? We did a bit of digging to try to understand how this all works and discovered that the processes and results are pretty similar regardless of the channel you use to get rid of your old smartphone.
One of the easiest ways to reduce e-waste and reuse an old smartphone is to give it to a friend or family member. However, before you give your phone to anyone (even a trusted family member), you're going to want to remember to back up any data you may have on the device (photos, contacts, music, etc.), and then perform a factory reset. This will ensure that none of your personal information gets passed on to another person and that they can begin using the device as their own.
Phone resellers are typically online businesses that offer to purchase your old, unwanted smartphones or other gadgets and then turn around and resell them to prospective buyers. Their business model and philosophy are to encourage smartphone reuse and reduce e-waste by removing devices from the waste stream and repurposing them for use by other people. You may not always get the best price from a reseller, but you can expect a relatively quick and pain-free process, including quick and guaranteed payment. A couple of the more popular phone resellers are Gazelle (opens in new tab) and Nextworth.
Resellers don't always accept every kind of phone but choose the ones they think will have a likelihood of selling (iPhones, Galaxy phones, Pixel phones). These companies are usually very upfront about what they will and won't pay for, and you can find lists of acceptable items on their websites. Some resellers will also buy back other devices like laptops, tablets, and smartwatches.
Gazelle and Nextworth both ask you to fill out an online form with information about which device you're planning to sell and what condition the device is in. The sites then extend an offer, and if you accept it, they provide you with a pre-paid shipping label to send it in to them. After they receive the device and evaluate it, they confirm the estimate or readjust if the device was not in the promised condition. If you decide to accept their final offer, they pay you (via check, PayPal deposit, or gift card); if you reject their offer, they will send it back to you free of charge or offer to recycle it.
For items that they determine to have no value, both companies say they will responsibly recycle them through their "certified partners." In most cases that I have come across, these resellers do not disclose exactly who their recycling partners are. Perhaps this is in the interests of confidentiality, or maybe they have a network of partners that is subject to change. Whatever the reason, the trail of readily available public information often runs a bit cold at this stage (more on this later).
In addition to Gazelle and Nextworth, there are many peer-to-peer and auction-based markets through which you can sell your used phones to potential buyers directly, such as Swappa (opens in new tab) and eBay (opens in new tab). These sites often generate a higher return for the seller, but there can also be more issues with arranging logistics and collecting payment.
Retailers and Carrier Stores
Big box stores like Best Buy and smaller retail chains such as GameStop also have incentives to take in your old smartphone and electronic devices. For starters, running trade-in programs can bring more repeat customers into their stores. Additionally, these retailers often will refurbish and repurpose trade-in devices to resell directly or through other channels. Many also offer recycling services through "recycling partners" for devices that they cannot turn around and resell.
Some retailers such as GameStop require customers to physically come into the store to sell or trade-in their devices, but they can offer up to $500 for used smartphones. Other bigger stores like Best Buy encourage also customers to bring in devices, promising a faster turnaround and quicker payment (in the form of store credit), but they will also accept online trade-ins (opens in new tab) as well.
Best Buy is one of the best places for taking in old devices and appliances (opens in new tab), regardless of where they were purchased. While they do have a very comprehensive recycling program and FAQs, they don't readily disclose who their recycling partners are, or how they operate (a common theme here).
Carrier stores operate similarly to retailers like Best Buy. However, their clear preference is to work with customers (or prospective customers) on trade-in or buyback programs to get them on some sort of service plan or contract. Whether done online or in-store, the carriers will examine your old phone and assign a value to it that you can accept as credit towards a new device (on a plan), but they won't just buy the old device off of you outright.
The carriers then try to refurbish and resell your old phone, or they will recycle them through their recycling partners.
A few interesting notes concerning carrier recycling and repurposing programs:
- T-Mobile has been operating its recycling program for over ten years (opens in new tab), and claims that they reuse or resell 96% of their trade-in devices. This is especially impressive considering an EPA study they quote that "90 percent of cell phones end up in landfills or are disposed of improperly."
- AT&T follows a similar path and has a lot of information on their website about corporate sustainability initiatives, but not a lot of details are evident about specific recycling operations. They do say that they work with non-profit organizations like Cell Phones for Soliders to donate and repurpose old devices.
- Verizon is unique in that it says it will accept other devices in addition to smartphones, such as tablets, smartwatches, and digital cameras. The company features information on recycling resources by state (opens in new tab), and they say on their website that their "first priority is to renew and reuse the device. When devices can't be renewed and must be recycled, we adhere to a zero-landfill policy to keep e-waste out of landfills."
- Other carriers and MVNOs often offer trade-in, buyback, or recycling programs as well. If you can't find information on their websites, contact their customer service departments online or in-store.
Many original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) like Samsung and Apple, who produce and sell their own devices directly, also offer trade-in and buyback programs. Some of these companies even provide recycling services as well.
Apple is well-known for its environmental and sustainability efforts, touting how they reuse many rare and precious metals in their manufacturing. They even developed custom robots (opens in new tab) to help break down and harvest these materials to keep them out of the waste stream. Like many of the organizations mentioned here, Apple's preference is for reuse, and they say on their website that more than 2/3 of devices that are traded in are "passed on to new owners."
On the Android side, Samsung has long offered very generous trade-in programs for new devices. For example, when the Galaxy S20 series came out some customers were able to get up to $700 on "old" Galaxy Note 10s and Samsung S10+ devices! Since the company has few retail stores themselves, Samsung encourages customers to work with their carriers on recycling devices; however, Samsung is one of the most transparent companies when it comes to listing exactly who its recycling partners are (opens in new tab).
And even though sustainability darling Fairphone encourages the reduction of e-waste and reuse by creating products that are modular and customer-repairable for long-term use, they also try to work with responsibly sourced fair trade and recyclable materials, they also will recycle customers old phones in some geographic regions where they operate.
So this is where it all gets interesting. You see, most of the conversation thus far has talked about how various companies will buy your old phone to resell it to someone else. While this is still a great solution for the environment because it encourages a reduction in e-waste and reuse of existing products and components, at some point, even those devices will be rendered obsolete. Then what? Well, then it comes time to recycle those old phones.
As we've covered above, pretty much all of these companies, from phone resellers to retail outlets to carriers and device manufacturers all say that if they cannot turn a device around for reselling that they will make every effort to recycle the equipment in a "responsible manner." Some are more forthcoming on what exactly that means. In most cases this means that the companies have contracted with certified partners to handle the dirty work of disassembling the phones and recycling their components.
It's not always easy to find out who these recycling partners are, or what policies and procedures they employ to recycle devices responsibly, though many reference something called R2 certification. R2 refers to Responsible Recycling, and it is a certification bestowed on organizations that have gone through a formal vetting process by an NGO or non-profit organization like SERI (the Sustainable Electronics Recycling Institute). According to SERI, there are nearly 1,000 such accredited recycling facilities worldwide.
Founded in 2003, Eco-Cell attempts first to refurbish and resell old devices. If that is not possible, they work with R2 "or better" certified recycling companies to recycle the devices responsibly.
EcoATM has over 4,300 self-use kiosks around the country, often located within grocery stores and big box stores. They've collected over 25 million devices over the last two decades, and also try to resell or donate devices when they can. They are unique in that they also accept accessories and chargers (though they don't offer money for these products), and can accept mp3 players, phones, and tablets (limits to what kiosk can handle). EcoATM's website has some of the best information about what standards and processes they follow, as well as the bigger environmental picture.
Responsibility starts with you
As we've learned, the most common strategy for dealing with old, unwanted smartphones by resellers, retailers, and device manufacturers is to try to refurbish and resell them to get the maximum value from these devices. This has obvious economic benefits for the person selling the device, the company operating as a reseller, and the individuals purchasing a useable and more affordable device. It also addresses two fo the 3 Rs by reducing the impact of e-waste in landfills and reusing old tech.
My colleague Andrew Martonik summed it up best in his recent article that the most environmentally friendly thing you can do is not to buy a new phone. While Andrew obviously isn't saying that you should keep your device forever, the message is that you should try to hold out for as long as you can. Most of the smartphones we buy can be effectively used for three, four, and even five years or longer if treated well and taken care of. Maybe that means you hold onto your phones a little longer, and/or perhaps that means you take care of your phone so that it can be reused by or sold to others.
Whatever you do decide to do with your old device, I implore you not just to throw it away. Take a few minutes to research how you can get value back for it and keep it out of the waste stream, or how you can responsibly recycle it and spare unnecessary waste and pollution. Thank you!
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