STAR TRIBUNE | Don’t need that iPhone from 2014 anymore? Offload old tech using these tips

In the intake sorting area, Luke Kragenbrink, an environmental health and safety specialist, looked at a portable record player that Repowered’s St. Paul collection site had recently acquired.

The Twin Cities offer several environmentally friendly ways to rid yourself of obsolete phones, laptops and other electronic devices.

In most American households, there is a junk drawer that has turned into a no man’s land of forgotten items. It’s usually filled with doodads like loose rubber bands and takeout menus as well as — increasingly — abandoned electronics.

There are the old cables and cords that connect to who knows what and obsolete or inoperable cellphones, saved for no real reason.

After all, U.S. households have a total of 22 connected devices on average, according to a 2022 survey from consulting and financial advisory firm Deloitte.

But these electronics graveyards don’t have to languish in overstuffed kitchen drawers or dusty shoe boxes under our beds. There are numerous options in the Twin Cities and across Minnesota for ridding yourself of those stashes of forgotten devices in easy — and environmentally friendly — ways.

Here are some ways to purge your home of unused tech:

Computer monitors are tested in the display department at Repowered

Computer monitors are tested in the display department at Repowered, one of the largest collectors of e-waste in Minnesota. JEFF WHEELER, STAR TRIBUNE

Don’t just toss it!

In Minnesota, it’s illegal to throw away any electronics containing a cathode ray tube or mercury. Cathode ray tubes and mercury are found in a variety of computer monitors, laptops and television screens. It is also illegal to throw rechargeable batteries and products with rechargeable batteries in the garbage.

“Most electronics have some sort of toxin in them. … It’s a public health issue to throw away your electronics in the trash,” said Maria Jensen, an environmental health and safety expert at Repowered, one of the largest collectors of e-waste in Minnesota.

Plus, there’s the possibility of reusing some precious metals or other electronics parts.

According to a pilot study Jensen and other researchers published in March, more than 266 million pounds of e-waste is available for recycling in Minnesota every year with 78 million pounds of that comprised of valuable metals, which could generate $2.8 billion a year. Recycling or refurbishing all of the state’s e-waste could also create more than 3,000 jobs, per the survey.

Keep it alive

Before you retire your old device, consider if it’s really at the end of its usefulness.

“Use your device for as long as possible,” said Amanda Cotton, electronic waste program coordinator for the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA).

Consumers don’t always need to switch quickly to the latest iPhone when their old phone still works, she said. People can also give their old devices to children or perhaps a senior. Or if you really want a different device, consider purchasing a refurbished one to help the circular economy. National retailers such as Best Buy, for example, offer up to 50% off refurbished electronics and have performance-tested them.

Electronics repair stores can also restore many electronics, whether that’s fixing a cracked screen or installing a better battery. People should also contact manufacturers about warranties or insurance policies for devices in case something breaks.

People can sell their used electronics to pawn shops, video game stores and other specialty electronics stores. Many people also choose to sell their electronics online themselves via options such as Facebook Marketplace, although people should approach that last option with caution and be mindful about safety when making an exchange.

You can also donate old electronics to nonprofits, including Goodwill and Cell Phones for Soldiers.

Boxes and boxes with discarded consumer electronics await further processing at Repowered

Boxes and boxes with discarded consumer electronics await further processing at Repowered in St. Paul Wednesday afternoon, May 3, 2023. JEFF WHEELER, STAR TRIBUNE

Find a place to recycle

Many electronics are recyclable, including well-known items such as laptops, printers and televisions. Customers can also recycle items such as docking stations, video and audio cards as well as charging cords.

Contact your city or county household hazard waste site for recycling options. Call and confirm what electronics they accept and what — if any — fees apply. There are drop fees because of how complicated and costly it is to deconstruct and move some items. The MPCA has a list of registered collection sites by county, which includes private businesses.

If a junk collector offers to haul something for free, that’s usually a red flag they don’t plan on disposing it correctly, Cotton said.

“The cheapest thing for them to do is throw them away,” Jensen said.

Repowered operates a large collection and recycling facility off Vandalia Street on the outskirts of St. Paul’s Hamline-Midway neighborhood. It sorts items and repairs on site whatever is fixable. Repowered sends what’s left to another facility that shreds the material before it then goes to a smelter to extract precious metals for repurposing.

“People can just show up at our facility … and just drop off anything with a cord, a battery or a circuit board,” Jensen said.

Some of the few items Repowered doesn’t take are freezers and refrigerators.

About 10% of what the facility collects is refurbished and possibly sold at the used electronics store Repowered has on site. Certain electronics that are more complicated to recycle, like a printer or a microwave, might require a fee. But Repowered is Ramsey County’s official e-waste collection partner, making it free for county residents to recycle most items at the Vandalia facility.

Repowered also has a smaller site in Golden Valley.

Besides going to a collection site, cities and counties also hold collection events, such as spring or fall cleanups, advertised through the mail or found on community calendars.

Protect your privacy

In terms of data on old electronics being recycled or refurbished, consider resetting or wiping your devices before dropping them off, Cotton said.

Large recyclers like Repowered, whose data destruction process includes either an electronic wipe or physical destruction, are transparent about how they destroy data on the devices they receive. But do your own research and ask recyclers how they handle that process.

You can also seek out a recycler with third-party data security certifications like R2 Responsible Recycling and NAID AAA Certification.

The front entrance of Repowered in St. Paul displays some examples of unusual electronic items brought to Repowered for recycling.

The front entrance of Repowered in St. Paul displays some examples of unusual electronic items brought to Repowered for recycling. JEFF WHEELER, STAR TRIBUNE

Go to the source

Where you bought your electronic device could be the answer to where you offload it.

Amazon, for example, allows device trade-ins for a gift card if you’re planning on upgrading to a newer model. It also runs a recycling program where you can mail in your unwanted items. The e-retailer even offers used battery drop-offs.

Richfield based-Best Buy, the country’s largest retail collector of e-waste, has helped customers recycle 2.7 billion pounds of electronics and appliances since 2009. Customers can drop off up to three electronics per household per day at Best Buy stores. Some items come with recycling fees, like flat-screen televisions, which cost about $30 each to recycle. Best Buy also has a trade-in program, offering gift cards for items that still have value, like a fairly recent iPhone model.

In 2022, Best Buy launched a stand-alone haul-away service to pick up and recycle up to two large products — such as major appliances and computers — for $199.99. This was in addition to Best Buy’s existing $39.99 haul-away offered with purchase and delivery of a replacement product.

Last month, Best Buy started a new recycling service where customers can order a prepaid Best Buy technology recycling box and ship off old electronics through the mail. The boxes come in a small size that can carry up to 6 pounds for $22.99 or a medium size holding up to 15 pounds for $29.99.

“It’s just another way for us to reach customers where they are at,” said Tim Dunn, Best Buy’s head of environmental sustainability. “If they don’t have the convenience of a Best Buy nearby, and they don’t have maybe those big items for us to come and pick up at their home, but they have a lot of the small stuff … we’re just bringing … another option for our customers.”

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