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Why It’s Illegal to Throw Away an Old Phone (and What to Do Instead)

Most of us throw away household goods without even thinking about it. To us, the trash can is a semi-mysterious portal that eliminates whatever we throw into it. We get rid of food scraps, plastic containers, and broken writing utensils without contemplating what happens to the trash in the next stages of disposal. If it’s broken, or if it’s no longer of use to you, just throw it in the trash, and it will be removed – right?

That answer isn’t as ironclad as you might think. In most areas of the United States, it’s illegal to dispose of electronic devices – including your old cell phone. If you throw your phone in the regular trash, you could face a hefty fine, or even face jail time (depending on the severity of the infraction).

Why is it illegal to throw away something you no longer need? And what should you be doing instead?

Why Throwing Away an Old Phone Is Illegal

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First, let’s clarify that while it’s illegal in many areas to throw away an old cell phone, this law isn’t universal. Still, even in areas where it may be legal, it’s a bad idea to dispose of old electronics in the garbage, and you shouldn’t do it under any circumstances.

The most important reasoning behind this edict is an environmental one. Your phone, even if it’s several years old, is chock full of important electronic components – just like other devices in your house, like computers, tablets, and TVs. It contains toxic chemicals like lead, arsenic, and cadmium. If you throw your phone away, it’s probably going to get sent to a landfill, where these chemicals can gradually break down and leach into the soil.

Given enough time and enough electronics, these chemicals can be devastating to the local environment. They can make the soil barren and kill off local species of wildlife. To make matters worse, these chemicals can even work their way into the groundwater supply, threatening the potability of drinking water for miles in every direction.

On top of that, disposing of an old phone without disassembling and recycling it means you’ll be throwing away precious, rare materials like gold and platinum. Because these materials are practically lost in disposal, mining efforts must be increased – presenting an entirely separate set of environmental concerns.

If you aren’t persuaded by the environmental argument, you should also know that throwing away an old phone can present a security threat. If you don’t fully delete your personal data from your phone, someone could find it and steal your identity (or your proprietary secrets).

So if it’s illegal to throw away an old phone, how do you properly dispose of old cell phones?

What to Do Instead

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According to, there are several options available to people looking to get rid of their old phones – and most of them are both convenient and inexpensive.

For example:

  • Reuse or repurpose. You might be able to reuse or repurpose your old phone for an entirely different function. For example, if you still have the charging cable, and if the phone is equipped with a camera, you might be able to turn it into a remote surveillance camera. You could also use it to control certain elements of your smart home if you have other connected components.
  • Donate. You may also be able to donate your old phone to someone who needs it. If you’re able to get a receipt for your donation, it may even qualify as a tax write-off; just make sure you delete all traces of your personal data beforehand.
  • Sell. Even better, you can sell your phone to a company that buys old phones from consumers. You get to make a bit of extra money, you get to dispose of your phone in a responsible manner, and the buying company will be able to reuse or recycle the various components of your phone, helping the environment in the process.
  • Recycle. If you don’t want to sell your phone for extra money, or if you just want to be sure your phone is getting broken down and recycled, you can drop it off at a qualified recycling facility in your area. This way, every salvageable component of your phone will find new life somewhere else.

You can also make an effort to reduce the number of electronic devices you buy each year; do you really need to get that new smartphone?

The Growing Problem

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Improper disposal of old cell phones and other electronics is a growing problem, not just in the United States, but around the world. As more electronic devices begin to fill our landfills, the sheer volume of harmful chemicals getting into the soil begins to compound. To make matters worse, billions of new electronic devices are being created, bought, and consumed every year – and developing countries are growing at an astounding rate economically, enabling them to keep pace with more established countries in terms of technology consumption.

The problem is especially difficult to address because of a lack of consumer awareness. Most local waste management companies make it a point to specify that electronics aren’t allowed to be thrown away like regular trash – but not everyone reads those documents and not everyone cares enough to follow the rules.

If we want to avoid ecological disaster, we need to do a better job of educating the public about the consequences of their actions and the importance of properly reusing or recycling old electronics. Everything starts with you.

You likely live in an area where throwing your old phone away is illegal. Even if you don’t, you now know that throwing a phone in the garbage is bad for you and your environment alike.

There’s no excuse anymore; instead of tossing your phone in the trash, make the time to reuse, repurpose, donate, sell, or recycle it. You have plenty of options that don’t result in environmental damage or jail time.

About Frazer Schmitt