What Happens To Old Smartphones After You Get A New One?

Why you should care

Literally millions of pounds of gold are chucked in the garbage every year because of cell phone e-waste.

by Cindy J Lin

Hey, I’m as gadget crazed as the next gal and when that new smartphone version is released, I can’t help but salivate over the new features (I’m waiting to upgrade mine, you know, the one with the 3 cameras?).

But, having worked in the world of environmental standards and regulations, and sharing notes with an ex-colleague who hopped from US EPA to a famous smartphone company (you know which one I’m talking about), I knew better than others how much resources and energy are used to create a single smartphone, in addition to the hazardous waste generated during the manufacturing process. 

The average American gets a new smart phone every 18 months, many of which are just thrown in the trash which causes millions of pounds of toxic e-waste. If that doesn’t get your attention, it’s estimated that the gold in the world’s e-waste equals as much as 11 percent of the total amount mined each year. Start your own recycled e-waste business or check out some of the ones we’ve highlighted in this article!

Few stats

  • As of 2016, we have 2 billion smartphone users in the world.
  • An average household has 24 devices.
  • Americans change their cell phones every 18.2 months.
  • 57 million phones are dumped in the US every year and 70% of this waste goes directly into our landfills.

E-waste, short for electronic waste, describes electronic products that are discarded or reached the end of its functional life. Nearly 100 million pounds of toxic e-waste is generated every year. These include everything from your smartphone to computers to that printer you just replaced.  Smartphone e-waste is a growing pollution problem in the US and the world. Because each smartphone (and it doesn’t matter which brand) holds highly valued raw materials like gold, copper and tin, the value of the smartphone goes beyond its function.

Furthermore, chemicals used to create and manufacture the phone, if not properly handled, can create a serious pollution stream. Certain components of materials in electronic products make them hazardous if thrown directly into the trash or landfills. For example, California state law views non-functioning CRTs (cathode ray tubes) from TVs and monitors as hazardous. 

When you are done using your smartphone, it can still live on as a phone for others and, in the best case scenario, the phone is broken up into parts for tech centers.

Some organizations offer e-waste recycling where they check to see if your phone can be refurbished or reused, and then maybe donated or resold to a secondary market in the US or other countries. If the phone is completely unusable, it is sent to recycling plants, all-purpose shredders, and the metal components are shipped to a few registered smelters where the metal parts are melted down to be used. Precious metals such as gold and palladium are recovered, but much of the materials are left to burn, releasing very toxic air pollutants into the atmosphere (mercury, chloride, etc.).

According to Peter Holgate, founder of Ronin8 Technologies and an expert pushing for a circular economy where waste is used again, smelting these metals is still a better alternative. Otherwise, illegal organizations make money by getting people to extract these metals in a home pot cookers, which causes horrible environmental and human costs. 

It’s estimated that the gold in the world’s e-waste equals as much as 11 percent of the total amount mined each year — literally millions of pounds of gold are chucked in the garbage.

What’s the Sustainable Bottom Line?

I know this sounds a bit bleak, but you should know there are always better ecological and sustainable alternatives to every bad choice. They might not be perfect and by itself, one single method might not solve our global problem immediately, but if we are in it for the long haul, then we should think about the better overall habit behavior we are creating and modeling collectively. 

Here are a few things to do once you decide you want to upgrade your smartphone:

  • Trade it in for a better phone or cash (Tech companies love this because they can refurbish the used phones themselves and resell it. Think Apple, Amazon, Samsung).
  • Sell it yourself to other users who don’t mind NOT getting the latest and greatest.
  • Demand Fair trade phones, which are phones where phone components can be easily replaced or upgraded so the whole phone doesn’t need to be discarded.
  • Recycle e-waste with official certified organizations (AllgreenrecyclingHomeboy Electronics Recycling).
  • Check out a first responsibly made smartphone, Fairphone.

Keywords: planet; environment; smartphone; iphone; e-waste; circular economy; sustainable; hazardous; refurbish; circular economy; gold

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