What do I do with old electronics?

The right way to get rid of spent laptops, phones, cables, and more


Admit it, you’ve got a mess of old laptops, earbuds, or phones crammed into a drawer, box, or closet. The urge to hang onto these devices probably comes from a good place: Better in your home than in the landfill contributing to the world’s growing e-waste woes. But as you tidy up, you should consider recycling, donating, or selling them. Here’s what you need to know about keeping your electronics out of the dump.

How much e-waste do we create?

With everything from “smart” egg trays to sensor-equipped toilets lining store shelves and filling up ecommerce shops, electronic waste is reaching record highs around the globe. Commonly trashed electronics include computers, phones, and large household appliances.

E-waste rose by 82% worldwide between 2010 and 2022, reaching nearly 70 million tons. That’s enough to fill tractor-trailers lined up bumper-to-bumper around the planet

United nations global e-waste monitor

E-waste rose by 82% worldwide between 2010 and 2022, reaching nearly 70 million tons, according to a recent United Nations report. That’s enough to fill tractor-trailers lined up bumper-to-bumper around the planet. By the end of the decade, our digital garbage could reach around 90 million tons.1

In fact, e-waste represents the world’s fastest growing waste stream,2 yet only 20% is formally recycled globally due to challenges such as high costs, difficulties in extracting valuable raw materials, and a lack of awareness among consumers. This means that tossed devices send valuable resources such as gold, platinum, cobalt, and rare-earth elements to the trash heap. Up to 7% of the world’s gold may even be stuck in e-waste.3 

The impacts of e-waste

E-waste can release hazardous substances into air, water and soil, harming people, plants, and wildlife. “The after-market life of the product can be very damaging because of the effects on our environment,”  says Lucas Gutterman, ​​director of the nonprofit U.S. Public Interest Research Group’s (PIRG’s) Designed to Last campaign against e-waste and planned obsolescence. 

The afterlife of chucked gear also has a human impact. People, often those in developing nations, regularly participate in informal recycling. In this process, workers may use their bare hands to take apart equipment, heat plastic in rooms with poor ventilation, and wash components using corrosive acids.4 Through this process, people get exposed to dangerous substances like mercury, cadmium, and lead.5

When devices get dumped into landfills or littered, heavy metals such as lead and arsenic, along with flame retardants, can contaminate soil, water, and crops. Among numerous negative impacts, this pollution can affect the animals and people that eat contaminated crops, as well as contribute to water acidification that can reduce an ecosystem’s biodiversity. 

While researchers are developing improved electronics recycling techniques like robotic disassembly, experts say that the electronics industry can reduce the need for disposal in the first place by designing longer-lasting, more easily repairable devices. 

Increasing the lifespan of electronic devices by 50%–100% can mitigate up to half of total greenhouse gas emissions associated with mining, manufacturing, and transportation of these products.

Circular Economy

This could have major climate benefits by reducing the volume of manufacturing, which damages the planet via mining, uses loads of water, and creates significant carbon emissions.6 Making a single iPhone 15 releases around 120 pounds of carbon dioxide, according to Apple, and the company produces hundreds of millions per year.7

One 2022 paper published in the journal Circular Economy estimated that by increasing the lifespan of electronic devices by 50%–100%, we can mitigate up to half of total greenhouse gas emissions associated with mining, manufacturing, and transportation of these products.8 “We’re increasingly being pushed into this disposability treadmill that just has us replacing our phones, our laptops, our appliances at much faster rates than we used to,” Gutterman says.

How to prepare your electronics for donation, selling, or recycling

To lower the social and environmental cost of e-waste, we can do our part by disposing of our spent devices responsibly. Before we can send them out into the world, we have to ensure they’re working properly and commit some data destruction.

  1. Back up and sign out. You can start by backing up the content on your device to an external hard drive or cloud account, ensuring that all the information is also properly encrypted in case some of it isn’t erased (some products, including newer Macs, do this automatically). Then sign out of any accounts.
  2. Remove storage. Then make sure you don’t have any removable storage units remaining in the device, such as USB ports, DVDs, SIM cards, or memory cards. As for laptops, you should also wipe and (if possible) physically remove a device’s hard drive.
  3. Reset. If it’s available on your device, activate the “factory reset” setting to wipe your data and return it to the original settings for the new owner.
  4. Assess. Finally, determine how well your gadget is working so you can offer realistic expectations before giving it away. “It might be the case that a laptop that is too slow for you to use for video editing is totally acceptable for an elementary schooler that just needs to use it to go on Google Docs,” Gutterman says. “You can test what is possible and what might be broken and just then be honest.”

Donating and selling used electronics

If your gizmo still works well enough for its intended use, consider donating it to someone in need. Americans in lower income brackets often can’t afford smartphones, laptops, and tablets.9 You can donate your tech to national organizations such as Digitunity and Human-I-T. You can also search for nearby donation options by checking with your local government.

If you’re looking to make some cash, you can also opt to sell old devices. Check out  reputable online marketplaces like Gazelle, Back Market, and VIP Outlet. You can also take to Facebook or Craigslist to sell locally, but beware of scams.

Where to recycle your electronics

To prevent devices from reaching landfills, avoid throwing electronics in household garbage—many states have even banned this practice. If your device no longer functions well and likely can’t benefit a new owner, it may be best to recycle it. One option for recycling: manufacturer take-back programs. Call2Recycle maintains a list of popular companies that will take back products for free.

You can also search Earth911’s database for certified e-waste recycling facilities near you (certifications ensure  proper safety and environmental standards), or check if your local municipal recycling program accepts electronics at nearby drop-off locations. “The most important thing is that you are actually making sure your product is being collected for recycling appropriately,” Gutterman says.

What about all these old cords? 

If you’ve got some tattered old cords you no longer need—or can even use due to the Lightning connector’s demise—you can opt to sell them via Freecycle.org or a local buy-nothing group, or give them to a local e-cycler you find on Earth911. You can also try donating them to a local school or university’s STEM program.

Special considerations for specific devices

Certain items have specialized recycling and/or donation programs. 

  • Mobile phones. Handsets can likely be traded in with your carrier or donated to charitable causes like ECO-CELL, Cell Phones For Soldiers, or the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence. Since cell phones often contain lithium-ion batteries, they cannot be placed into regular household bins due to fire risks and must be specially labeled when shipped in the mail.
  • Laptops. Laptops can prove helpful for individuals with lower incomes, school children, and elderly community members. The organization Computers with Causes sends donated computers to a variety of venues, including schools and medical services.
  • Removable batteries. If you have any used batteries you’re able to remove from your devices, you can search Earth911 or Call2Recycle for drop-off locations near you.
  • Appliances. If you’re looking to recycle electronic household appliances, it’s important to leave them unplugged for a few days and to tie up the cord so you don’t trip on it. If it still works, you can donate it to organizations like Habitat for Humanity or local churches and thrift stores. Otherwise, you can search Earth 911 for nearby recycling facilities that accept appliances.
  • Printer cartridges. You can drop these off at a nearby Walmart, Best Buy, Office Depot, OfficeMax, or Staples (some stores offer rewards in exchange). You can also recycle HP cartridges and other printer parts by mailing them back to the company.

State and federal e-waste regulations

Efforts to establish nationwide e-waste laws or regulations have fallen flat, but 25 states (plus the District of Columbia) have passed e-waste legislation since California kicked things off in 2003. 

These laws typically ban certain electronics, such as laptops, desktop computers, printers, and televisions from trash disposal. They also require electronics manufacturers to offer a collection program for recycling. California raises funding for e-waste collection and recycling with an advanced recovery fee, which is added to sales of certain electronic devices.

Additional recycling and disposal tips

What do I do with old batteries?

Like e-waste, batteries hitting the bin can lead to serious problems. The materials that power our gadgets and gizmos can leach heavy metals into groundwater and soil after a trip to the landfill. Sometimes they can even spark water-resistant fires. The good news is that most batteries—from the single-use AAs in your remote to the rechargeable lithium power pack on your drill—can be recycled. You’ve just gotta know where to take them. Learn how to recycle your old batteries and how to find a recycler near you.

What do I do with old cleaning products?

Getting rid of cleaning products can be quite messy. Some have the potential to rip through metal, burn skin, catch fire, and react violently to each other or just water and air. The key things to remember when getting rid of old cleaning supplies: read the labels carefully, never (ever) mix bleach and acid, and avoid dumping things down the drain. In many cases, household cleaners are considered hazardous waste, so if you find yourself with any excess, it’s important to understand how to dispose of cleaning products responsibly

What do I do with old clothes and fabric?

Trends come and go with dizzying speed these days, and even the most sustainable shoppers aren’t immune to needing a white t-shirt refresh every now and again. It’s no wonder that textile waste adds up: The U.S. chucks around 68 pounds’ worth per person every year, according to the latest data from the EPA. Luckily, there’s plenty we can do with fabric and clothes we no longer need. Reputable donation and take-back programs are an excellent first step for items in good condition. For stuff that’s hanging on by a thread, consider upcycling it at home or, as a last resort, taking them to a recycler. Learn how to get rid of clothes.  

How to get rid of unused or expired medicines?

According to a survey run by Stericycle, nearly 40% of people say they hang on to leftover meds for future use, which means a lot of us have potentially expired scripts hiding in the back of the bathroom cabinet. Simply flushing those extra meds—as many folks do—can pose risks to people and planet. That’s why working through established take-back programs or using EPA– and DEA-recommended disposal methods is crucial. Learn more how to dispose of unused medicines

  1. The Global E-waste Monitor, United Nations Institute for Training and Research, International Telecommunication Union, Fondation Carmignac, 2024 ↩︎
  2. Tackling Informality in E-waste Management: The Potential of Cooperative Enterprises, International Labour Organization, 2014 ↩︎
  3. A New Circular Vision for Electronics: Time for a Global Reboot, The Platform for Accelerating the Circular Economy, World Economic Forum, Jan. 2019 ↩︎
  4. Informal Electrical and Electronics Waste Recycling and Its Health Impacts: Evidence from Developing Countries, Yale University, Jan. 2023 ↩︎
  5. A New Circular Vision for Electronics: Time for a Global Reboot, The Platform for Accelerating the Circular Economy, World Economic Forum, Jan. 2019 ↩︎
  6. Opportunities for Reducing the Supply Chain Water Footprint of Metals Used in Consumer Electronics, Resouces, Conservation and Recycling, Jan. 2022 ↩︎
  7. Product Environmental Report, Apple Inc., Sep. 2023 ↩︎
  8. Disentangling the Worldwide Web of E-waste and Climate Change Co-benefits, Circular Economy, Dec. 2022 ↩︎
  9. Digital Divide Persists Even as Americans with Lower Incomes Make Gains in Tech Adoption, Pew Research Center, Jun. 2021 ↩︎