In the U.S., consumers replace their cell phones every two and a half to three years. In general, Samsung offers five to seven years of security updates. Google Pixels get five years of security updates. The iPhone’s security updates end after about five years. The lesser-known Fairphone promises security updates for seven years. 

When new viruses, malware, and other threats come out regularly, who wants a phone that no longer gets updates? That’s a leading reason that cell phones are replaced every few years.

Cell phones aren’t designed to last forever, and once security updates end, most users switch to a new phone. Some upgrade when newer features appear. The EPA reports that approximately 2.7 million tons of consumer electronics were generated in 2018, but only 1.04 million tons were recycled properly. E-waste recycling had a 38.5% recovery rate, meaning there’s room for improvement.

When you have old cell phones, how do you recycle them? Not every state has laws in place, but that doesn’t mean you should throw them into the trash. We can help you understand the best ways to recycle your phones.

The Value of a Recycled Cell Phone

A cell phone is made up of plastic, glass, and several rare earth elements, metals, and alloys. Take a closer look and explore where those metals and alloys come from.

  • Battery – Cobalt, lithium, and nickel
  • Case – Magnesium and nickel
  • Display – Dysprosium, europium, gadolinium, lanthanum, praseodymium, and terbium
  • Electrical Connections – Nickel
  • Micro Capacitors – Tantalum
  • Microphone – Nickel
  • Semiconductors – Gallium
  • Speaker – Gadolinium, neodymium, and praseodymium
  • Touch Screen – Indium
  • Vibration Unit – Dysprosium, neodymium, and terbium

Where do they come from?

  • Cobalt – Found in minerals like cobaltite, erythrite, or skutterudite, which are found in Australia, Brazil, Canada, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Zambia.
  • Dysprosium – Found in certain minerals that are commonly found in China, Malaysia, and Russia
  • Europium – Found in minerals that are commonly found in China, Malaysia, and Russia.
  • Gadolinium – Found in minerals that are commonly found in China, Malaysia, and Russia.
  • Gallium – Found in raw ore that is abundant in China, Germany, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine.
  • Indium – It’s a byproduct of mining zinc and is produced in Canada, China, Japan, and Korea.
  • Lanthanum – Found in rare-earth minerals that are commonly found in China, Malaysia, and Russia.
  • Lithium – Lithium comes from a rare type of rock or salt lakes found in South America.
  • Magnesium – Found in certain minerals and also seawater and underground mineral salts that are abundant in China, Russia, and Turkey.
  • Neodymium – Found in certain rare-earth minerals that are more common in China and California.
  • Nickel – Found in certain ore deposits that are more common in Indonesia, the Philippines, and Russia.
  • Praseodymium – Found in several minerals that are more commonly found in China, Malaysia, and Russia.
  • Tantalum – Found in a specific mineral that is mined in Australia, Brazil, and Canada.
  • Terbium – Found in certain minerals that are commonly found in China, Malaysia, and Russia.

The rate at which some of these are mined is depleting supplies. That’s why recycling is so important. If manufacturers run out of necessary alloys, metals, and other components of a cell phone, cell phones will not be the same. Imagine losing the touch screen function on your phone. The experience would be negatively impacted.

That’s just one of the problems. The mining process often introduces contaminants to the groundwater and soil. A town in Peru that’s known as being dangerous due to the lack of laws is dealing with water sources that are contaminated by mercury. Mining does a lot of damage that recycling can prevent.

When cell phones and their chargers (aluminum) are recycled, e-recycling companies can break down the components and recover some of these essential elements, metals, and alloys. Plus, the plastic and glass can be recycled. All of these reused components protect the earth and kickstart a circular economy.

Things to Do Before You Recycle Them

Before you recycle a cell phone, reset it to factory default if you can. Look for data destruction software like Eraser and follow the steps to destroy your data. If your phone is broken, there may not be other options. Make sure you’re choosing a recycling provider that provides data security by destroying data as part of the recycling process.

Make sure you read the policies on shipping phones, if you decide to ship them through the mail. Some companies will ask that you remove the battery, if possible, but others won’t care. Include the recharging cable if you have one. The plastic and metals in a charging cable should also be recycled rather than thrown into the trash.

Choose e-waste recyclers who work to protect the environment and properly handle the data on electronic devices. Check for certifications from organizations like e-Stewards, which is given to companies that promise to recycle electronics within the U.S. and not ship them overseas. Another to consider is R2, which is about sustainability and materials recovery. 

Data security should be another concern. Facilities with NAID AAA certification specialize in data destruction. Look for facilities that also possess that certification.

Where to Recycle Your Broken or Unwanted Phones

That’s what you should do and look for before recycling your broken and unwanted cell phones. What are the best ways to recycle them?

Best Buy, Staples, and several other retailers accept a number of electronic devices each day. There are limits on how much you can recycle.

Best Buy:

Most stores accept three cell phones per day. There’s also a flat-fee service for just under $200 that allows you to recycle two major electronics and as many smaller ones as you have. 

The Salvation Army:

Salvation Army locations accept used electronics. Those that are still usable are refurbished and sold. The revenues generated go to fund the Salvation Army’s many charitable programs. If items have no value, they’re recycled with a leading e-waste and ITAD provider.


Call your local Staples to find out how many electronic items they accept each day. Most use the chain’s limit of seven items, but it can vary. There’s also the option for a Technology Recycling Kit that starts at just over $14 where you purchase and fill the box. Shipping is included in the price, so once it’s full, arrange transportation with UPS. UPS brings items to the nearest ERI facility for processing.

Another option is to look at ERI’s recycling boxes. Pay a fee for the box, which covers UPS shipping, and send your electronics to ERI for responsible, safe recycling. ERI also hosts collection events around the nation.

During a collection event, residents in that community can recycle computers and their peripherals, televisions, and mobile devices. These events are only for residents and not businesses.

Learn more about recycling events at Your local recycling center may also offer electronics recycling where you drop items off free of charge.