Low Waste Tips

What should you do with your old electronics?

Elisa Bonnin
September 20, 2023
6 minutes
Text reads: What should you do with your old electronics. With a picture of woman repairing an electrical item

If you just got a new cellphone, you aren’t alone. Statistics show that worldwide, smartphones last their users less than three years on average before being replaced. And while this number has gone up since 2014, when smartphones lasted less than two years, it still means that a lot of new cellphones are being bought and replaced every day.

But what do you do with your old phone? A group of 4,000 Android users were asked the same question, and here's what they found:

  • 40% keep the phone as a back-up.
  • 30% trade their old phones back into the shop
  • 20% pass their phone down to a loved one.

While many of these are great ways to give electronics a second life, they rely on the phone still working. So what happens when your old phone is broken or simply won’t run anymore? Well, it likely gets thrown away. And if you’re one of the people who tosses it in the trash and forgets about it, you could be hurting the environment.

Recycling waste is good, preventing it is better

Here's what to do with your old electronics

E-waste should definitely not go into your bin. If it has a plug, requires a charge or uses batteries, it’s e-waste. If you live in the UK and you’re ever uncertain, you can look on the item itself to see if it has a WEEE logo, a trash bin with an X over it. Anything with that logo, whether it’s as big as a washing machine or as small as a computer mouse, does not get thrown into the trash.

So what do you do with them? Well, it depends on the condition of the item.

1. Start with Repair

Before recycling, selling or donating your old gadgets – how about getting them fixed? A faulty washing machine or cracked phone might just need a quick fix. Many manufacturers will offer affordable services repair or replace it, plus it can be much cheaper to pay to have something fixed than to buy new. Usually way better for the planet too. Or you might fancy learning how to make do and mend for yourself.

2. Try to Donate/Sell

Electronic items that still work can be donated to secondhand shops or to local charities, so that someone else can still make use of them. Many of these charitable organizations will pick up large items like appliances from you directly, saving you the trouble of hauling them yourself. If you can’t figure out how to donate them, you use sites like Facbook Marketplace (look out for scammers), eBay or Craigslist to recover some of the cost of the item.

3. Recycle them correctly

If the item is completely broken, what you do depends on where you live. If you live in the UK, you can take your electronic items to your nearest Household Waste Recycling Centre, which often have special containers for broken electronics. If you live in England and Wales, you can use this tool to find out exactly what your council collects. You can also use this tool to see if electronic retailers near you have any programs for reclaiming broken or waste electronics. Some might even let you trade-in old electronics for a discount on replacements.

In the US, your recycling rules will vary depending on the state you live in. Unfortunately, the United States doesn’t have national guidelines on what you should do with your own electronic waste. In fact, according to the EPA, much of US e-waste ends up shipped to countries without the capacity to safely recycle them. This is a problem that will require legislation to fix, but in the meantime, there are a few things you can try to keep your waste electronics from ending up in landfills.

The first thing you should try is to see if your area offers e-waste disposal services. If you're in US, the e-Stewards group and Sustainable Electronics Recycling International both offer online tools you can use to see what your options are. If your area is covered, follow your local recycling center’s guidelines for e-waste disposal. But if your area isn’t covered, many major retailers, including Staples and Best Buy, offer programs allowing customers to bring in their e-waste. If your device was made by Apple or Google, you can turn in your used devices for recycling as well. You may even have some luck selling completely broken devices on sites like eBay. Just make sure you specify that the device doesn’t work (eBay offers the condition category “For Parts” for exactly this purpose).

Whatever you end up doing, as long as it keeps these devices out of landfills and incinerators, you’re helping to ensure a healthier, safer, and more sustainable future for all of us.

What is E-Waste?

E-waste is the catch-all term for all waste electronic products and equipment. This means both electronics that have reached the end of their life cycle and electronics that have no more value to you as the consumer. This category contains all kinds of electronic equipment, from IT equipment like laptops, to personal electronics like cellphones, to appliances like washing machines and refrigerators, to obscure items like toys and medical devices. If it has a battery or a chip in it, it counts as e-waste. In the US, e-waste is sometimes called end-of-life electronic equipment (EEE), while in the UK and EU, you might be more likely to hear the term waste from electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE). Fun acronyms aside, e-waste is a major problem.

As the world becomes more connected, e-waste makes up a larger and larger portion of trash. In 2019, a report found that a record 53.6 million tons of electronic waste was thrown away worldwide, and the same report estimates that if nothing changes, we could be throwing away 74.7 million tons of electronic waste annually by 2030. That’s a lot of old technology! To make matters worse, estimates suggest that only 17.4% of all that e-waste was properly collected and recycled.

Part of the reason why we’re making so much trash has to do with electronic equipment no longer being made to last. In the past, when laptops and cellphones were more expensive, people rarely replaced their devices. But nowadays, between planned obsolescence and new models being released every year, people tend to replace their laptops and cellphones more frequently. Many cellphones and laptops now only have a useful life span of two years, which means they get tossed more often.

And while it’s not your fault that your new cellphone isn’t built to last, e-waste that hasn’t been disposed of properly can cause serious harm to the ecosystem.

Why is incorrectly recycled E-Waste harmful?

That’s because of the components that make up e-waste, which can include non-renewable resources like gold and copper, and toxic materials like coolants, battery acid, and lead. Even the plastics that make up our electronics can leach into the environment given enough time in a landfill, causing harm not only to the plants and animals that make up the ecosystem, but to nearby humans.

Let’s take polybrominated diphenyl esters (PDBEs) as an example. PDBEs are a class of flame retardant chemicals. They’re used in a variety of consumer electronic applications, especially in plastics, textiles and circuitry. It makes sense you’d want to use a flame retardant around wires, because electrical fires are the second-largest cause of home fires, but when PDBEs leak out from your discarded electronics and enter the ecosystem, they quickly get into water supplies and into food that we eat. Research found that in the US, where PDBEs were more common, PDBE levels in humans were 10-100 times higher than those of people living in Europe or Asia. Exposure to high levels of PDBE can affect thyroid function and can cause adverse birth outcomes in humans.

And that’s just one chemical lurking in electronic waste. Take a look around your house, at all of the electronic objects you might have. How many of those have harmful chemicals in them? Your fridge and air conditioner need coolant, your batteries run on lithium or battery acid, and the chips in your laptops and phones contain rare metals that are not only non-renewable, they can also be toxic at high doses.

It isn’t just about toxicity, though. Improperly recycled e-waste can be downright unsafe, and can harm both the workers who handle recyclable materials and the recycling infrastructure itself. Remember that in some places, trash ends up in incinerator facilities rather than in landfills. An unexpected electronic item in an incinerator can cause serious harm. Even in the best case scenario, where e-waste gets burned without causing any damage, you’re still wasting resources. About 80% of the non-renewable components within e-waste can be recycled to make new devices. The best option for any of these items is to be properly recycled, so that harmful components can be disposed of safely and rare materials can be repurposed.

Other useful resources

  1. Local recycling points in the UK
  2. Local recycling points in the USA
  3. Check out the Right To Repair movement
  4. How to trade-in your old Apple Device

How can Scrapp help?

Are you embarking on your own recycling journey? Our sustainability experts are here to guide you. So, if you need further guidance, personalized strategies, or more details about our digital recycling tools, don't hesitate to reach out. We're committed to helping you achieve your sustainability goals.

You can book a free 15-minute chat with our team here.

Article by
Elisa Bonnin