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Cash, trash, or karma: How to get rid of your old gadgets

We know, it’s embarrassing: The holidays roll around — then post-holiday sales roll around — and suddenly we have a bunch of new stuff. But it comes with guilt. Sure, the new phone, tablet, e-book reader, computer, game console, or TV is great … but now we also have an old phone, tablet, e-book reader, computer, console, or TV taking up space. Sometimes they find new uses immediately; other times they’re just pushed aside into a drawer, closet or under the bed. After all, that old gear is probably worth something to someone somewhere, right? It’s not junk: We were just using it last week! And most can’t simply be thrown away: they contain toxic materials, heavy metals, and rare earths that leach into the environment.

Fortunately, hiding gadgets in the recesses of your house and forgetting about them is not your only option. Recycling, donating or selling old electronics is easier than ever. Here’s how.

Get ready

Much of the work of letting go of old devices happens before you unplug them. You’ve got to preserve your information, then scrub your old devices clean of your data. This includes documents, photos, email, and messages, but also a myriad of hidden settings and files: You don’t want whoever uses it next to be able to log in to your Facebook account. Same goes game consoles and even seemingly innocuous things like set-top boxes and Blu-ray players. Here are the basics:

Phonecopy android
Image used with permission by copyright holder

Back up your data—Make a working copy of your data before wiping a device clean. We know this seems obvious, but it’s amazing how many people lose their photos, music, email, texts, and address books when they decide to upgrade their phone. Once you’ve made a copy (to a hard drive, SD card, cloud service, a new device, etc.) make sure the backup works before wiping your old device. Record any passwords or license codes you need in a secure place.

For iPhones and iPads, Apple’s iCloud and iTunes offer online and local backup to a Mac or Windows PC; third party backup tools are available. Android users can go with Google or a number of third-party apps and services, including some from device manufacturers.

When backing up a computer, be sure you can boot from your backup. On a phone or other mobile device, spot-check your data to make sure it’s accessible. Some things are easy to replace—most apps and media purchases can be re-downloaded, given enough time and bandwidth — but that adorable video of your kid sister with gummi bears up her nose might be unique in the universe.

Cancel services — Don’t pay for services you won’t be using! If you’re getting rid of a phone, cancel your phone service or transfer it to a new device. (Same goes for tablets and notebooks with mobile data service!) If you’re using cloud-based media or backup, cancel your subscriptions (if you won’t use them) or de-authorize your old device and set up service on your new one. Lots of services have three- or five-device limits. Moving from Xbox to PlayStation, or vice versa? Cancel your PlayStation Plus or Xbox Live Gold membership if you won’t be using it. Ditching that older Roku set-top box? If you won’t be using Amazon Prime Video, Hulu Plus, Netflix or whatever elsewhere, stop paying for it. The same advice applies to software subscriptions. Moving from Windows to Mac? Might be time to rethink that Office 365 subscription.

Erase your info — For phones, tablets, and many other devices, you can clear off your data by performing a factory reset. Often, this means digging through configuration menus because reset options are usually tucked away to prevent accidental erasures. For computers, it means re-formatting your drive and (maybe) re-installing your operating system, whether from a recovery partition (like OS X Recovery), a backup drive, or original installation discs. It’s tempting to think simply deleting your visible files (or your user account) is enough to protect you, but recovery programs can still pull information back after deletion, and just deleting the obvious stuff leaves loads of personal data behind, like passwords, account names, software registrations, and even banking information. It’s best to completely format the drive. If you have the time, choose “thorough” or “most secure” options that overwrite the disk several times and let it run overnight.

Erase ipad
Image used with permission by copyright holder

Take out any SD cards, USB drives, and other removable media. Remember: it’s not just phones, tablets, and computers that have sensitive information! E-book readers, Blu-ray players, smart TVs, DVRs, boomboxes, audio receivers, set-top devices like Apple TV, and digital cameras can all carry things like usernames, account info, Wi-Fi passwords, and more. Reset everything.

If you’re selling or trading in your device, disable any tracking services like Find My iPhone or LoJack for Laptops. Otherwise, the value of your device drops to zero.

For phones and tablets with mobile data — Remove your SIM card. Every device is different, but in general it’s either in a tray you can pop out, or tucked in with the battery. Check online (most device makers post instructions — here are Apple’s) or in the instructions that came with your device.

Get rid of it

If your stuff is just junk — maybe it’s broken, too old to be useful, or you simply want to be done with it — you have lots of options for safely disposing of gadgets and electronics.

  • The Greener Gadgets site operated by the Consumer Electronics Association lets you search for recycling and disposal services by ZIP code. They only cover nationwide efforts in the U.S., but that includes major retail chains like Staples and Best Buy (most of which will accept a wide variety of items), so it can be a great resource for finding recycling locations in a hurry — like when you’re moving.
  • Earth911’s search feature lists both nationwide and local recycling locations by city name or ZIP code, along with what products they accept. Search results are not just limited to electronics, so you can find places that’ll take toner cartridges, lead-acid batteries, metal, appliances, and even plastic bags.
  • E-cycling Central lists electronics recyclers and refurbishers by state, but also includes some local non-profits that can take electronics off your hands and help out the less fortunate.
  • Call2Recycle is a non-profit focusing on rechargeable batteries and mobile phones, which contain some of the most toxic stuff that winds up in landfills. Call2Reycle’s search feature covers nationwide and local no-cost recycling locations in both the U.S. and Canada.

Many municipalities and counties have partnered with private companies to set up electronics disposal or recycling services. There may be a fee for recycling some items, like CRT monitors or televisions, but sometimes the service is part of your utility bill, and many places waive fees during periodic recycling drives.

Get cash

If you want to wring every last penny of value out of your gear, you have two options: sell it, or trade it in.

Craigslist and eBay are the most-common venues for selling your stuff, but they’re not for everybody. With Craiglist, you have to meet and deal with prospective buyers, or invite them over to check out large items: not something everyone is comfortable doing. Of course, eBay is more hands-off, but if you don’t already know the ropes of selling on eBay, getting things listed can be as painful as filling out income tax forms. However, selling your stuff directly is probably the best way to get top dollar for it.

Trade-in programs give you cash or credit for your old gear — but usually less than what your gear could command in the open market. Companies offering credit for trading in recent products include Apple, HP, and Sony — and these can be great options if you’re upgrading to a new product from the same company.

Selling electronics sitesMany retailers offer trade-in programs for recent products they think they can refurbish or re-sell. Amazon will take back eligible items for Amazon Gift Cards, and offers free shipping to get the items into Amazon’s hands. (Unsurprisingly, this means Amazon doesn’t take heavy items like TVs, but they do take Blu-ray players, headphones, and even wireless routers.) Best Buy will take trade-ins at many of its retail locations in exchange for Best Buy gift cards. Even if they won’t offer a gift card for your stuff, they will still recycle it for free.

If Amazon’s and Best Buy’s trade-in values seem paltry, you may have other options. NextWorth accepts a widely variety of tablets, phones, cameras, notebook computers — along with game consoles and even video games. If you like their offer for your stuff, you can print free UPS shipping labels or take items to more than 1,500 locations in the U.S. (including many Target stores) to get paid by check, PayPal, Target gift card, or a Discover pre-paid card. Similarly, Gazelle pays for phones, tablets and Apple products by check, PayPal, or Amazon gift card. E-Cycle aims more at businesses and enterprises, but they do pay via check or PayPal for recent smartphones and tablets — and they apply the same data-wiping and protection regimen they offer corporations.

Get karma

If the $50 offered for your old MacBook Pro at trade-in seems like a waste of time, maybe you can get karma points (or at least a tax deduction) instead — as long as it still works. The National Cristina Foundation offers a locator service to match up your gear with local non-profits, schools, public agencies, and volunteer organizations just by entering an address or ZIP code.You might pay for shipping, but there are no fees or hidden gimmicks, and many local non-profits will come by to pick stuff up. E-cycling Central (above) also lists a number of non-profits alongside traditional recyclers. Have an old phone collecting dust? Check out Phones 4 Charity and Secure the Call.

No excuses

There are lots of good reasons to hold on to old gear: A backup computer can be a great idea, a two-year-old tablet will still keep kids entertained, and old phones can still dial 911. But if you have electronics just sitting idle and taking up space, it only takes a little bit of work to do the right thing. Get on it.

Lead image courtesy of Shutterstock/Pablo Hidalgo

Drew Prindle
Former Digital Trends Contributor
Drew Prindle is an award-winning writer, editor, and storyteller who currently serves as Senior Features Editor for Digital…
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