ALTOM: Ready to toss your old cell phone? Think again

Today, the typical cell phone has the productive life of a cockroach: about 18 to 24 months. It’s not that the phones stop working. Today, a phone can keep going for years before something vital breaks. Most are simply swept aside by later, snazzier models.

Over 100 million are discarded every year and, unfortunately, a high percentage end up in trash cans, where a variety of toxic materials like lead, zinc, antimony, mercury, beryllium, arsenic and cadmium are happily hauled away to the dump to quietly contribute to the environmental crises of later decades.

National Geographic ( has even argued that the rapid turnover in cell phones hurts lowland gorillas. An obscure material called “coltan” is used in cell phones and mined in central Africa, where the lowland gorillas live. Mining the stuff is so profitable and unregulated that the gorillas that share those forests with the mines are either driven off or killed for meat.

So what is a responsible person to do with those accumulating old cell phones? Well, you can recycle them directly, you can sell them, or you can donate them. Or you can hang onto them until the Smithsonian Institution one day calls you up to get its hands on your antique phones.

If you’re not partial to the Smithsonian strategy, you might be able to squeeze a little cash out of your old cell phone carcasses. Pace Butler (, for example, will pay you for an old cell phone if it has any market value. Anything too damaged or too old will be tossed into a recycle bin. Gazelle ( has pretty much the same deal, as do a dozen other companies out there. But it seems like a lot of trouble to get back a few dollars on an old phone and, besides, I tend to keep phones for so long that even the manufacturers don’t recognize them.

If you want to be more public-spirited, you can forgo the cash and throw an old phone into a recycle bin yourself. The city has ToxDrops at various places around town where you can relieve yourself of not only cell phones, but also fluorescent light bulbs (always hard to get rid of safely), motor oil, car batteries and similar dangerous stuff. See a complete list at Keep Indianapolis Beautiful ( The site also has a long list of places that take cell phones off your hands.

You can likewise split the difference by donating the phone to a charity that will, in turn, toss it into a commercial recycle bin, but get cash for it when they do. Shelter Alliance ( is just one charity that will accept free phones and sell them to recyclers. Meals on Wheels ( is another, and the Salvation Army ( is yet another. A lot of charities have picked up on this way of generating easy, if sparse, cash.

Another option is to donate old phones to organizations that will give them to victims of violence for emergency communications. It’s not widely known, but the Federal Communications Commission requires all cell phone providers to transmit free 911 calls. The Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department ( has a program to provide emergency phones to those who need them. The Indianapolis Senior Citizen Center ( has a similar one, as does The Julian Center (, a women’s shelter.

I once donated a few older cell phones to The Julian Center, and I can tell you it’s probably best to drop them at the Thrifty Threads donation center on West 86th Street, because when we dropped off our phones at the Julian Center itself, we had to leave them outside hanging on a doorknob, due to security concerns that prevented the staff from letting us into the building.

No matter whether you sell, recycle or donate your old phone, make sure you’ve cleaned out its memory of all contacts, text messages, photographs, and incoming and outgoing numbers. If you don’t know how to do that, your service provider can do it for you. You’ll probably want to transfer a lot of that to a new phone, anyway, so just have the old phone wiped after the switch.

It’s incredible how many people forget to clean out their personal information when they toss away their old laptops, tablets and cell phones. After sterilizing your phone, cut the phone loose from its service provider. That will eliminate the danger of being billed later for somebody else’s calls on your old phone. After that, you’re free to do what you want with the dead device, including giving it back to the service provider who will quite likely toss it in the recycle bin.•


Altom is an independent local technology consultant. His column appears every other week. He can be reached at

Please enable JavaScript to view this content.

Story Continues Below

Editor's note: You can comment on IBJ stories by signing in to your IBJ account. If you have not registered, please sign up for a free account now. Please note our updated comment policy that will govern how comments are moderated.