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Cell Phone Recycling Guide

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Dec 22, 2004, 7:00 PM   by Eric Lin

Phone Scoop's comprehensive guide to recycling your old cell phone. All about why you should do it, your options, and alternatives.

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We cannot, in all good conscience, publish a buyer's guide recommending that you buy new handsets as gifts for loved ones (or even yourself) without recommending what to do with the old models. If the phone being replaced is new enough, you can always sell it off or hand it down to a deserving friend or family member who could use a newer model. However at some point in the hand-me-down chain, there is an old phone that is either going to collect dust in a drawer, or worse, wind up in the trash. It's these phones that we're after.

Experts estimate 55-100 million mobile phones will be retired this year. Despite the growing number of phones being recycled year after year, it is still less than 5% of replaced handsets. Unfortunately, far more (about 25%) are estimated to wind up in the landfill. The rest are handed down or laid to rest in a closet or drawer.

The Why 

Whatever you do, please don't throw that old cell phone away, no matter how old and busted it is. Like many other modern electronic devices, phones contain circuits boards, batteries and LCD that each contain a number of harmful materials in them. When phones are dumped in landfills, these elements eventually break down and leech out into the environment. Lead, Cadmium and Mercury pollution could potentially cause deadly side effects and are the primary reason why states like California have made cell phone recycling mandatory for any retailers that sell mobile phones. Sadly, the heaps of obsolete computer equipment have a greater negative impact on the environment than phones, so we encourage you to look into recycling old CPUs and monitors as well as your handsets.

There is an even deadlier reason why it is critical that old phones don't get tossed away- people are literally dying for them. The legacy of "blood diamonds" is well known, however the fact that a similar arrangement exists to mine coltan (Columbium Tantalum) is lesser known. Tantalum is a superconductor, one of the best on Earth. It is used to coat capacitors to help them create more power from less energy so that your cell phone no longer needs a battery larger than the phone itself. In war torn central Africa, people are forced into modern day slavery to mine this rare element, which is then sold to fund the wars in this region. Recently the majority of Tantalum production has shifted to Australia, however it is a rare element, so decreasing demand helps decrease the likelihood that manufacturers will turn to African supplies.

Sadly, it is very difficult to reclaim Tantalum once it has been manufactured into an electronic component. Because of this, and these other environmental factors, we strongly recommend that no matter how you choose to get rid of your phone, you donate it to an organization that will make all efforts to re-use it rather than simply "safely disposing" of it. Luckily current economics dictate that it is more lucrative to refurbish phones rather than safely recycle them.

By Carrier 

The easy solution

Despite the fact that California's mandatory recycling law doesn't go into effect for another 18 months, and most other states have no such law, every major national carrier accepts all phones, and usually accessories, chargers and batteries at each of their retail stores. If you don't care where your phone or the money made from it is going, just drop it off at the closest carrier-owned store, or leave your old model there when you buy a new handset. They each accept phones, as well as batteries and accessories. In addition, Staples and other stores offer supplies for recycling your phones by sending them into companies like Collective Good and ReCellular.

If you care where your phone, or where the money from it goes, then you should take some time to learn what your carrier does, or if you feel another organization could better benefit from your handset.


If you are a Nextel customer, it behooves you to make the extra effort and return your phone via the Nextel Buyback program. They are the only carrier who actually offers subscribers money for many models of their handsets. The company makes all efforts to take those handsets and reuse them, but handsets which Nextel cannot refurbish, along with those from other carriers are recycled and the money from them is donated to the American Red Cross Armed Forces Emergency Services program. This Red Cross program is helps to contact troops and get them in touch with their families if there is an emergency back home in the US.

Nextel's program has been wildly successful, at least compared to most other carriers, even ones larger than Nextel. The company collected 1.4 million handsets in 2003 alone. No other carrier claimed to have collected that many over the lifetime of their recycling programs through the end of 2003. Nextel had already collected 1.5 million handsets to recycle by October of this year, the most recent date statistics are available.


Cingular has from time to time offered rebates for subscribers who return an old GSM handset when upgrading to a new model. Even without rebates, they encourage subscribers to recycle old handsets, asking for them when they upgrade in the store or sending return mailers if the upgrade is by mail. Like Nextel, Cingular will make attempts to refurbish older handsets returned to them and will even use certain refurbished models as phones for pre-paid customers. Cingular also donates a number of handsets to Donate a Phone, which distributes handsets with emergency service to battered women. Handsets that are refurbished or donated from Cingular or any other carrier are recycled.

The Rest

T-Mobile, Sprint and Verizon all use ReCellular to recycle the phones dropped off at their stores. ReCellular prepares donated phones for resale in Latin America by either refurbishing phones in good condition or using them for parts. Phones that are hopeless are recycled as much as possible and the rest is safely disposed of. ReCellular tracks the proceeds from each phone donates them to a charity the carrier chooses.

T-Mobile donates their proceeds to the American Red Cross Disaster Relief Fund. Currently that fund has been helping victims of this year's series of hurricanes across Florida. They were even thoughtful enough to recently mail out a reminder letting their subscribers know they accept phone donations at every store.

Like Cingular, Sprint also participates in the Donate a Phone a program, which distributes phones to battered women. Proceeds that come from phones sent by Sprint to ReCellular are donated to Easter Seals and the National Organization on Disability, which is dedicated to helping people with disabilities participate in society more more fully.

Verizon also uses donations to help battle domestic violence, however not simply through the Donate a Phone program. Instead Verizon uses all the proceeds from recycling to fund it calls HopeLine, which distributes money to domestic violence prevention and education efforts through various groups.

By Charity 

Destination Matters

If you want to be sure your phone or the proceeds from it goes directly to a specific charity, whether it's one a carrier already sponsors or not, you can donate your phone to the Donate a Phone program or to the two primary phone recyclers in America, Collective Good and ReCellular. Nearly every charity that accepts cell phone donations uses one of these two entities, and between the two there are a large number of worthwhile causes to choose from.

ReCellular refurbishes phones for resale in Latin America, but GSM is sorely under-represented there (except for in Brazil). So if you're donating a GSM phone, especially a triband one, please check to see if Collective Good has a charity you'd like to support. They send phones to Eastern Europe and India as well, where GSM 900/1800 is the primary cellular protocol.

Donate a Phone

If you want to be sure your phone is given to a domestic violence victim as a lifeline, The Wireless Foundation offers you the option to directly contribute your phone to the Call to Protect program. There are collection centers around the US, or you can mail your phone, charger and spare batteries directly to the organization.

Collective Good

Collective Good simplifies donating your phone to a specific charity by providing a form and shipping container, available online or at your local Staples store. Simply check off a charity, put your phone, charger and accessories in the mail, and you'll receive a charitable donation form for your tax deduction.


ReCellular allows the location where you drop off your phone, whether it be a carrier store or other retail establishment, to choose where the proceeds from your phone are donated. Their public website, Wireless Recycling, has a list of locations and which charity donations at that location will support. If there is no nearby location for your charity, you can send your phone directly to ReCellular in order to support that cause.

Charity of One 

If you are strapped for cash but still want to recycle your phone, you could always try eBay. However there are also a number of businesses that offer to buy back used phones. Two of them have proven trustworthy enough over time to consider this solution. Cell for Cash and Old Cell Phone both refurbish phones for resale either in regions of North America where that handset is still in demand or in other countries. They don't always offer much money for many of the handsets, which is why you still may choose to donate your phone to charity in the end. Remember, the Lance Armstrong Foundation has raised millions of dollars from the sale of $1 yellow bands, so imagine how much your phone's value is helping a charity.

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Dec 28, 2004, 2:44 PM

Clearing out data before donating?

What exactly does one have to do to remove personal data or account data from a cellphone one wishes to donate? E.g., remove the SIM card if a SIM-card-based phone; or wipe/shred data if a PDA-cum-phone?
You would definitely want to remove the sim and you would want to perform a master reset. You would also want to delete out the VM number.
Like phonescoopjunkie and eric Lin both said. It is extremely important to clear off the data. Don't want personal information for your friends and family to get out.

At our store, we give the SIM cards back to our iDEN customers and then do a Mas...

Dec 25, 2004, 5:20 PM

Buyback Programs

Mr. Lin, I need to correct you. Nextel is not the only carrier to have a handset buyback program. SprintPCS launched theirs in October. You can get up to, if I recall correctly, $75 credit when returning your old handset and buying a new one.

Unfortunately, I don't have access to the details anymore. If you call Sprint and the representative you speak to doesn't know about it, either, ask them to look up "Handset Buyback" in Wizard.
Slander, i'm looking into this. there's no information on the program on sprint pcs's public website. in fact, they state they might offer a buyback program in the future. however after you raised this issue, i did find this information on Sprint PCS ...
Cingular also has a buyback program for certain phones. When switching for AT&T to Cingular. It's about $75 on phones like the V600, Nokia 6800, etc. It offers a nice incentive for switching over to Cingular.
There are also better places to sell old nextel. Try www.betterbuyback.com

They buy old nextel phones and claim to pay more than Nextel.

Dec 30, 2004, 12:03 PM

blood diamonds?

Can someone explain this term to me?
Blood diamonds. People forced into slavery to mine diamonds so the greedy can get that almighty dollar.

Dec 30, 2004, 9:48 PM

emergency uses

If you know anyone who does not have a cell phone your old one can still be used by them without signing up with a provider. 911, The most important feature will still be available to them for free. Remember to show them how to work it and provide them with a charger and battery.

This feature will be beneficial to anyone and certainly the senior set.

Dec 28, 2004, 12:18 AM

Amazing Article

I have been working in the wireless department of a major retailer for about 2 years now, and people always ask me what they can do with old phones. they usually want to trade in the phones and get a store credit, but we do not offer that. What i always tell them to do is to donate it directly to a battered women's shelter. The idea is just brilliant. It definately helps out the customer b/c it means they don't have old phones sitting in their basement, collecting dust; and it helps women who are in a situation in which they need help. As a friend to a woman who has been in that situation, I know that it is tough. In fact, when i found out she did not have a cell phone, I found an old phone in my basement that had not been activated in...
There is an even deadlier reason why it is critical that old phones don't get tossed away- people are literally dying for them. The legacy of "blood diamonds" is well known, however the fact that a similar arrangement exists to mine coltan (Columbium ...

Dec 27, 2004, 7:32 PM

Excellent article

Great advice and an excellent article - don't just toss away that old handset!

Dec 23, 2004, 11:06 PM

I think im going to do it!

Thanks Rich for telling me, i have many old phones that i was going to throuw away in a couple of days, i never knew that you could do this, i actually went to staples and saw these cell phone recycling bins, thanks for the tip Rich! I feel good about what i did now! 😁
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