Reduce, Reuse, Recycle: Uses for an Old Cell Phone

It works! by mecredis on Flickr!A friend of mine was about to chuck her old cell phone in the trash, without a second thought. When I suggested that she might be able to do something else with it, she just shrugged and said, “What use is an old junk cell phone?” While she didn’t throw it away right then, I’m quite sure that the phone wound up in the trash before long.

That’s unfortunate. An old cell phone has plenty of worthwhile uses, ones that don’t result in the phone winding up in a landfill somewhere, wasting space and leeching chemicals into the environment. Even better, many uses for a cell phone can save you money.

Recycle It
If you’re really thinking of just tossing that cell phone in the trash, at least think of recycling it instead.

The easiest place to do it is at your cell phone store or at a large electronics store – most stores like this have a bin available where you can just drop in your old cell phone for recycling, ensuring that the chemicals don’t get into the mix.

You can also use a service like RecycleMyCellPhone.org, which will help you print off a mailing label that will allow you to mail the phone to a recycling center. This can be a good option if you live in a very rural area.

Sell It
You can also sell your old cell phone if you want to go to a bit more effort. Services like CellForCash.com will buy your old cell phones for a few dollars (obviously, the price depends on the model). You might be able to get even more than that if you have a local phone reseller who buys old phones – check the yellow pages to see if any are near you.

Donate It
My preferred option, if you’re simply looking to get rid of the phone, is to donate it to an organization that can put it to good use.

My top preference is to donate phones to spousal abuse centers. Such centers can then give the phones to women and children who are in abusive situations so that they can use the phones to call for help in the event of an abusive situation. Check the yellow pages to find a spousal abuse center in your local area.

Another excellent use for used cell phones is the Cell Phones for Soldiers program, which takes used cell phones and gives them to members of the United States military deployed overseas, enabling them to call their families with ease.

Think Outside the Box
There are also many personal uses for old cell phones. Here are four ways you can actually reuse that outdated piece of equipment.

Use it as a 911 phone. Charge it up, turn it off, and stick the phone (along with the old charger) in your glove box. Then, if you’re ever in an accident or other emergency, you can pull the phone from your glove box, flip it on, and use it to dial 911. This will work because all cell phones are required to allow you to dial 911, even without an active service plan to the phone.

Give it to a child to use as a toy. One of my two year old son’s favorite toys for many months was an old Kyocera flip phone with the SIM card removed. He’d open it up, turn it on, and play with it, pretending to talk to Grandma and so on. We didn’t charge it at all – he would use it quite happily without power.

Use it as part of a magic trick. With a single cell phone, you can do any number of “disappearing” or “unbreakable” item tricks, such as this one, where you appear to make the item vanish before someone’s eyes.

Even better, if you happen to have two identical phones, you can do a “switcheroo” trick where you appear to have smashed the phone, show the people the parts, then swap the parts back for the real phone.

All of these tricks can be key pieces of an amateur illusionist’s repertoire.

Experiment with it (or give it to a tinkerer). Another great idea for old cell phones is to use them for tinkering. There are many parts within a cell phone that can be used for building things, including the key pad and the LCD screen. Here’s details on how to reuse a cell phone display and also how to utilize cell phone parts for other uses. I can’t help it – I’m really into this kind of thing (and I’d do a lot more if I had more spare time). Even if you aren’t into this kind of thing, if you know someone who is, an old cell phone can be a treasury of bits and pieces.

What’s the message here? Don’t throw an old cell phone away. There’s still value in it yet, whether it’s in terms of direct compensation by selling it, additional value by reusing it, or social worth by finding a good cause to give the phone to.

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37 thoughts on “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle: Uses for an Old Cell Phone

  1. Ask for suggestions on how to recycle anything at the How Can I Recycle This Website! http://www.recyclethis.co.uk/

  2. She is part of the reasons why the economy will go into a crisis. Wasteful!

  3. Brian A says:

    Trent,
    Just a minor correction – Cell Phones for Soldiers actually sells the phones, buys pre-paid calling cards and gives those to the troops overseas. I thinks there is some legal restriction on sending cell phones overseas. In any case, still a good cause.

  4. Justin Reese says:

    This brings up my most recent “cell phone victory story”.

    In April, I switched two cell lines to AT&T and signed a two-year contract, which gave me access to their nicer tier of free phones. I picked two refurbished Sony Ericsson w580i’s, after seeing that their resale value on eBay was over $100/ea (locked/used).

    As soon as they arrived, I eBay’ed my wife’s for $150, and she kept her old, simple Nokia (which she preferred over the w580i). I used mine for about a month, before eBaying it for $125 and switching to a family hand-me-down.

    Come July, a friend with an original iPhone upgraded to the 3G and sold his old iPhone to me for $125. (This was the plan all along; we’d agreed on it after the iPhone 3G’s were announced, which is why I switched to AT&T in the first place.)

    Thus, with a carefully planned and executed upgrade, I was able to get an iPhone and $150 out of thin air. Yum.

  5. Lisa says:

    Like Trent did, make sure the battery is dead before giving to children as a toy. Better safe than sorry.

  6. Jessica says:

    If you have phones that use SIM cards, you can also do what my husband and I do.

    We’ve kept all of our old phones and use them for times when we need a phone, but what we are doing/where we are going isn’t the best place for a new phone.

    Examples: we swap them SIM cards into our older phones and take the old ones when we go camping or hiking, and we use them for when we go road or mountain biking (in our bike backpacks), that way if we fall or something and the phone gets smashed, then it is an old phone and not our new one.

  7. Sam says:

    Be sure to check out the organization that takes in old phones for supposed charity. An example of that can be found here:

    http://consumerist.com/5049836/woman-donates-cellphone-to-charity-but-it-ends-up-on–ebay-with-personal-info-intact

    So do some research, make sure you know where your phone is going.

  8. Ian Harris says:

    I keep an old cell phone in my car. The phone isn’t registered to a network – in fact there’s no SIM card installed at all.

    Why? Here in the UK, you can still make an emergency call without having a SIM card in the handset. So I use it in case I ever need to make an emergency call.

  9. Patricia says:

    Having once been a professional actor, I can also say that old cell phones are great PROPS for both stage and screen. “Prop Shops”, as they’re known, are always looking for donations. It’s also a great way to support your local theater!

  10. beth says:

    It’s also worth mentioning that cell phones are full of toxic materials that are not good to chuck in to the landfill, and some of the materials used in them are mined in politically turbulent areas (akin to diamond mining), so recycling those materials fends off a lot of potential problems.
    http://www.eoearth.org/article/Cell_phone_recycling
    (can’t find the link to the article I was reading recently about mining issues, but I think it was focused on the manganese mining in Africa.)

  11. andrew says:

    Jessica, that’s a really good idea. I hadn’t thought of that – and I know it personally could have saved me from at least 2 occasions where I’ve broken my new(er) phone doing something not necessarily conducive to keeping the phone intact.

  12. L.A. says:

    Teenagers like to use cell phones as alarm clocks.

  13. Megan says:

    Another place that you may be able to sell your phone is your provider. At Sprint, I was able to sell back my old phone and get a $20 credit on the new phone that I was buying.

  14. The phone in that picture reminds me of the ones they had on Saved by the Bell.

  15. I’ve often heard that you really need to know how to wipe the memory or storage from some “smart” phones out there before donating them. It’s possible to retrieve data (like your entire contact list). Not sure exactly if that’s true or Urban Legend.

  16. I have relatives living in several Asian countries and you can basically sell anything(even used paper sheets)there. I always ship my old cell phones to Asia; either to cell or giveaway. I do the same with laptop, digital cameras etc. It’s a good way to recycle.
    Cheers,
    A Dawn Journal
    http://www.adawnjournal.com

  17. Amy says:

    The phone you leave in the car will still need to be charged once in a while since the battery will naturally drain over time…

    Completely clearing out personal information is also important!

  18. Cindy says:

    Trent I very hardily disagree with you when you say to give it to a child to play with. Many people give children cellphones to play with and it is a nightmare for 911 centers.

    I am a 911 dispatcher and I have worked shifts where we receive dozens of calls from children playing with cellphones. It ties up calltakers from taking true emergency calls.

    Even if you chose to disable one for that purpose, the child may not understand the difference and may treat a currently activated one the same way.

  19. kristine says:

    makes a handy calculator too.

  20. I like your ideas. I tend to keep my old phone though incase my current phone gets borken for one reason or another. Instead of putting insurance on my phone I find this a great way to use my old phone. I’ve had to do this a few time already.

  21. Lynn Berry says:

    Please donate your old cell phones to spousal abuse centers. End the violence!

  22. Chad Oliver says:

    Yay for makezine.com and hardware hacking!

    (note: that’s not ‘hacking’ as in breaking into and corrupting, but rather as in legally repurposing)

  23. Pete says:

    Argh, if you give it to a kid, take out the battery ! Batteries with juice in them may explode if shorted. Their contents are unhealthy, you wouldn’t want your child to chew on one.
    This all besides the 911 problem.

    Using the phone as an emergency phone will in an emergency probably leave you with a drained phone.
    I once had a modell you could actually use with 3 AAA batteries which (phone switched off) would last years. The rest of the phone didn’t…

    Selling only works if it’s a relatively new phone (about 1 year old), you won’t even cover postage with older phones.

    Donating might be a good idea, but do clean the memory beforehand !

    A recycling company might be able to extract the (precious) metalls, so they can make a profit from your trash and you can save the environment.
    Close to the best option IMHO.

  24. Some of the mobile phone stores here in New Zealand take your old ones for you and either refurbish or recycle them. I think the refurbished ones go to developing nations so that’s good.

  25. Maria says:

    Cell Phone for Soldiers does NOT send the phones to the armed forces. Rather, they sell them to buy phone cards from soldiers.

    From their Web site:
    “Cell Phones for Soldiers hopes to turn old cell phones into more than 12 million minutes of prepaid calling cards for U.S. troops stationed overseas in 2008. To do so, Cell Phones for Soldiers expects to collect 15,000 cell phones each month through a network of more than 3,000 collection sites across the country.

    “The phones are sent to ReCellular, which pays Cell Phones for Soldiers for each donated phone – enough to provide an hour of talk time to soldiers abroad.”

  26. liv says:

    One suggestion is to also just keep it in case your new cell phone breaks. (Unless you buy insurance on your phone). I upgrade my phone every 2 years (through Verizon) and 3 months before my upgrade availability was good, my phone started chipping off at certain spots and I had to frantically find a new phone off craigslist before my phone snapped in half and I barely managed to get my numbers off of it.

    It was also a help since my sister’s phone broke a year later and i had a spare phone to give her to set up after the above lesson learned. (I guess this only works if you have the same carrier).

    So yeah, keep 1 cell phone as a backup. As you get new ones, you can go w/ the suggestions in the article :)

  27. Mikey says:

    A cell phone is e-waste and should not be dropped in the trash.

    From a local e-waste website:
    “Your old cell phone can be harmful to the environment if thrown into the trash. Cell phones contain materials such as lead, arsenic, nickel, cadmium, and other materials which can pollute the ground and water. One cell phone, tossed into a landfill, can pollute up to 40,000 gallons of groundwater!” (http://www.keepcaliforniabeautiful.com/cellrecyc.html)

    If you are going to dispose of it, take it to the same place where you dispose of your old computer, it’s no different.

  28. Check and see if there is a group in your area doing a cell phone collection as a fundraiser. Our county 4H & the local Special Olympics have both had these drives. Depending on the phone, the recycling company pays a certain amount & pays the shipping. We have collected some really old phones in our drive.

  29. BethBeth says:

    I was checking out other websites when I came across this story and thought of your post. They say you can get gift cards from Amazon for your old cell phones and iPods. http://www.imommies.com/financial-resources/income/old-cell-phones-or-ipods-amazon-gift-cards.htm

  30. ess says:

    Keep everything that came with your cell phone, and keep all of your accessories. Do your best to keep your cell phone in good condition. Buy a cover for it. Try not to drop it five times a day. Then, when you get a new one, sell the old one on eBay. I have sold every cell phone I ever had on eBay because I didn’t abuse them. I average $40 per phone, and they are usually 2+ year old models.

  31. Mr Porter says:

    Ditto keeping an old phone for biking and other rough activities.

    A second phone can also function as a second battery of sorts. My old phone still has decent battery life, so I make a point to keep it in the drawer fully-charged. So when I have somewhere to go, but realize the new phone’s battery isn’t charged enough to get through the rest of the day, I slip my SIM card into the old phone and take that instead.

  32. Instead of a cell phone, I have a tracphone – one of those pay as you go things. It is a very basic cell phone but suits me fine- alot better than a monthly bill for a contracted phone. My old cell phone (I was a slave to a contract for years…) serves as an alarm clock, a toy for gaming for my neices, and a palm pilot with names, addresses and phone numbers (did I mention the tracphone is kinda crappy?? and old??) I donated my boyfriend’s old cell phone to a shelter. I just watched a horrific story on 60 Minutes about recycling electronics! Very frightening!

  33. Ishtar says:

    I like that so many environmentally friendly things also qualify as frugal.

    I always give my old cellphones to family members.

  34. Jenn says:

    I’d advise against giving cell phones to children as toys. California’s Community Care Licensing reports, “Circuit boards in cellular phones contain arsenic, antimony, beryllium, cadmium, copper, lead, mercury, nickel and zinc. The rechargeable batteries used with cellular phones contain cobalt, zinc and copper.” They are really not safe toys for young children. Recycling is a much better option :)

  35. Ashley says:

    Also anyone who uses cell phones for 9-1-1 should be aware that the centers won’t always know where you are when you call. When we ask where you are, we really need you to tell us.

    The center I work at usually only gets the location of the nearest cell phone tower, and sometimes that isn’t even the case. And we are unable to call back cell phones that can only be used for 9-1-1.

  36. The only times when I have changed a cell phone over the past few years have been when I have broken or damaged the previous phone, and so donating the phone is not often an option … but I definitely take the time to recycle it. It is a shame that people don’t realize the environmental impact of throwing out a cell phone…

  37. Skip Bins says:

    I must have had 10 or so phones and I can not remember throwing any of them away. I will have to try and find them so I can have a recycling day… I’ll find those people who pay the postage and send them all off… Maybe it will be like Woody and Buzz going to the pre-school. Now where did I put that brick?

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