What happens to your phone when you get rid of it?

What happens to your phone when you get rid of it?
Source: Spencer Selvidge, Reuters
The most environmentally conscious way to get rid of an old phone is to give it new life by giving it away or selling it to someone else who can use it.

What happens if you toss it into the trash can?

  • Most garbage that ends up in landfills gradually decomposes over time, releasing gases like carbon dioxide into the air. This process is pretty minimally damaging to the environment around it.
  • For electronics though, the story is different. Electronic waste (AKA e-waste) is classified as toxic waste due to the many chemicals that it’s composed of. While this type of waste only makes up about 2% of trash in landfills, it makes up 70% of the toxic waste found there.
  • When electronics – including your old phone, laptop, or TV – decompose, they tend to bleed metal and chemicals into the ground, often seeping into the groundwater and destroying the environment in the area.
  • These metals and chemicals, which include lead, cadmium, chromium, mercury and polyvinyl chloride (PVC) can also have massive implications for human health, with some compounds even being considered carcinogenic (meaning they can cause cancer).

So what do I do instead?

  • The most environmentally conscious way to get rid of an old phone is to give it new life by giving it away or selling it to someone else who can use it.
  • Many companies – including plenty of original electronic manufacturers (OEMs) such as Apple or Samsung – have buyback programs where you can sell an old phone and receive a discount on a new one. The company then wipes the data and sells it as refurbished.
  • Where possible, it also makes more sense to repair your phone instead of getting a new one, so that you can extend the life span.
  • The problem here is that, over time, many OEMs have made it more difficult to repair devices yourself so that you have to go to them for repairs or to buy a replacement.

But what if it’s broken and unfixable?

  • This is when it’s a good idea to turn to a reputable electronics recycling company.
  • These companies use a number of highly specific machines to detect, shred, and take apart old and broken electronics. For them, there is money to be made in extracting valuable or usable metals from mass amounts of phones that wouldn’t be worth it with just one.
  • OEMs sometimes have similar processes for the devices that get returned but are no good for refurbishment. Apple, for example, has a specially designed machine called Daisy that can take apart 200 iPhones an hour, scrapping the reusable parts for future iPhones.
  • Recycling like this still has an environmental impact and these companies often end up venting chloride, mercury and other chemical vapors into the atmosphere. But it’s still better than the alternative.
  • Some recycling companies, instead of developing specialized machinery, pack shipping containers full of electronic waste and send it to countries like China, Ghana, India, or Pakistan.
  • Once there, the electronics are distributed to thousands of off-the-books microcompanies run by individuals who literally cook circuit boards to extract the precious metals in them, exposing themselves to massively toxic chemicals in the process.
  • The chemicals also leak into the ground and drinking water and can cause serious health problems like cancer or birth defects in entire communities.

So what should I do?

  • When in doubt, remember that old gimmicky phrase about the three R’s: Reduce, Reuse and Recycle, in that order.
  • Reduce the frequency you’re replacing your electronics and reduce the amount of e-waste you produce by fixing things if possible.
  • Reuse your electronics by giving or selling them to someone who can use it, or by using a buyback program that will do the same thing.
  • Recycle your electronics through a reputable recycling company that meets environmental and humanitarian standards.

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