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Recycle your old laptops, phones, cameras and batteries for free. Here's how

On Earth Day, don't throw away your old electronics even if you've upgraded to new devices. Here's what to do.

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What do you do with your phone when it's served its purpose? We'll give you some options.

Josh Miller/CNET

Gadgets can pile up over the years -- new ones come out, old ones break. You probably have a drawer full of old batteries and cables, and some old phones, laptops and desktops lying around, which may only be growing larger if you replaced any of your electronics over the holidays. Perhaps you keep them for nostalgic reasons (I admit I hung onto my first Nokia block phone to "show my kids one day") or because you thought you might be able to use them again down the line. 

Be brave. Stay focused. Peek into your drawers, the garage or a dark corner of your closet, and you're sure to find a pile of electronics you really don't need.

Whatever the tech, when it's finally time to say goodbye, there's a right way to dispose of your old gadgets -- and a lot of wrong ways. I'll help you out.

Read more: Best places to sell your used electronics in 2021

What should I do before I get rid of my device?

When you're finished a gadget, make sure it's also finished with you. Even though it might be old, someone just needs a charger to reboot your old phone or computer to get to your personal data.

The moral of this story: Make sure to back up anything you want off the device -- photos, videos, songs -- and then perform a factory reset. Don't worry, we'll give you pointers on wiping your device in the sections on phones, laptops and cameras below.

All those dead batteries

There are a couple ways you can properly dispose of the single-use and rechargeable batteries (like AA, AAA and D-cell) that are common in flashlights, toys and other household electronics.

Whole Foods, Home Depot, Lowe's and Staples all have free drop-off spots for dead batteries. I suggest collecting your used batteries in a container and taking them in once it's full.

You could also check out Earth911, a website that helps you find the nearest recycling location based on the battery type you need to dispose of (for instance, alkaline, button cell, lithium, zinc-air). Call2Recycle can also help you find places to recycle your batteries.

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E-waste can have a second life after professional recyclers extract copper and other valuable materials.

Sims Recycling Solutions

How to recycle phones

Phones and their batteries are some of the easiest electronics to recycle, according to Call2Recycle.

Remember to transfer any data and photos on your old phone to a new phone, or otherwise save your photos before performing a factory reset. Remember to also remove the SIM card (if it's still there).

The company accepts all phones and batteries regardless of size, make, model or age. Call2Recycle can refurbish the device for resale or recycle the materials for a new device. If you look hard enough, you can even get paid for recycling your phone.

If your phone is new enough, you may be able to trade it in to a carrier, if you're buying a new phone, or sell it on the open market. Otherwise, if it's lost a lot of value, recycling may be your best bet for getting a dusty phone off your hands.

Read: How to sell or recycle your phone for cash

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Cables are fair game, too.

Taylor Martin/CNET

Best Buy accepts three phones per household per day, Lowe's has recycling centers at every location, Home Depot takes phones up to 11 pounds and Staples also takes phones.

Whole Foods works with Secure the Call to send 911 emergency-only phones to senior citizens and residents of domestic violence shelters. Just make sure you bring the charger.

You can also donate gently used phones to Cell Phones for Soldiers: The program helps service members call their families for free. Local communities may also accept phone donations as part of a citywide drive. Additionally, you could also check with your employer to see how it handles e-waste. You may be able to add a few items to the collection.

Laptop recycling made easy

Before you scrap your old computer, ask yourself whether it's still usable. If it's less than five years old, chances are someone else can put it to good use, according to TechSoup. Newer laptops can go to local nonprofits or libraries after being refurbished. 

If the device is too old or out of shape to donate, you could recycle it. Again, Earth911 makes it easy: Just search for "laptop computer" and enter your ZIP code to find the nearest drop-off location. Dell's Goodwill Reconnect Program also accepts old and broken hardware from any brand.

Make sure the program you're leaving your old hardware with is reputable using the Environmental Protection Agency's Certified Electronics Recyclers site, and feel free to reach out to the refurbisher or recycler to double-check.

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Newer laptops make great donations. Just remember to wipe the drives first.

Sarah Tew/CNET

When you bring in the laptop, remember all the goodies that came with it: keyboard, mouse, printer, modem and any software. Usually, refurbishers can repackage all of this. Just remember to wipe your data first!

Additionally, donating your laptop could earn you a tax break. Keep track of what you've donated, just in case: You can learn more in the Sage BlueBook or Section 170 of the Federal Income Tax Code if you're feeling particularly ambitious.

Best Buy also recycles laptops for free -- with a limit of five per household per day. 

Chargers and wires can be recycled, too

If you're like my husband and you keep boxes upon boxes of wires, chargers and cables in the basement (just in case you ever need one), it might be time to let them go. You can search Capital Scrap Metal or InvestmentMine to see whether wires you've got lying around might be worth something. For example, as of April 2020, copper is going for $2.35 per pound, according to InvestmentMine.

You also can drop off your cables at Best Buy, Staples and other locations. Chargers can be repurposed, too. Sometimes if a cord stops working with one device, you might be able to make it work with another. Thrifty!

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Otherwise, look into donating your old cables, cords, chargers and wires at local science, technology, engineering and mathematics school programs, Google STEM, the National Center for Electronics Recycling or Earth911.

Yes, you should recycle your old camera

If you're still holding onto camera relics from the early 2000s, we've got a few places that will take them off your hands.

Best Buy and Home Depot accept cameras and camcorders. Lowe's also takes cameras. And, of course, Earth911 and Call2Recycle are options for the breadth of your used electronics.

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Large TVs may seem like a pain to donate. But Best Buy, for example, lets you drop off your TVs at retail locations to be recycled for just $30. 

Sarah Tew/CNET

TV recycling is possible

Televisions are larger electronics, so it might take a bit more elbow grease to get the job done, but don't let that intimidate you. As with donating and recycling phones and laptops, there are a few things you need to know about getting rid of an old TV. If the set still works, consider donating it to a secondhand store.

If you're able to restore it to factory settings, do so for smart TVs that are likely to contain personal information. Unplug everything, bundle the cords neatly and tape them to the unit. Use a dolly and be careful while you're moving the TV -- the potentially toxic materials in the TV could release into your house if you drop it.

A Google search will show a number of local recycling and donation centers that accept larger electronics. Best Buy, for example, allows customers to drop off their TVs (two TVs per household per day) in-store to be recycled for $30 per item. Best Buy will also pick up TVs for recycle from your house for $30 when a replacement is being delivered by Geek Squad or Best Buy Home Delivery. If there's no accompanying delivery, the pickup will cost $100.

A big ol' pile of smartphones.

Never throw old phones in the trash.

Josh Miller/CNET

Why can't I just throw my old devices and batteries away?

If your electronics wind up in a landfill, they don't just leave behind wires and plastic (which is a huge problem in itself). If dumped or improperly disposed of, e-waste can damage the environment. Most electronics contain toxic materials like lead, flame retardants and chromium. These materials can cause damage to human kidneys, the blood and the nervous system, according to a blog post by Ilene Lubell, president of the Mayer Metals Corporation, which recycles old electronics for businesses.

When electronics are incorrectly dumped or thrown away, those toxins can leak into landfills, groundwater supply and vaporize into the atmosphere when heated, according to Lubell.

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There are a number of eco-friendly ways to dispose of old electronics that could potentially help people in need or in underserved communities. It's important to note that disposal protocol can differ by device.

Behind the scenes, devices are recycled, refurbished or redistributed. Sometimes they're mined for parts or melted down to extract the rare earth materials within. Apple's Material Recovery Lab in Texas uses robots to dismantle iPhones at a rate of 200 devices per hour.

Get out there, and get recycling!