Where Old Gadgets Go to Die

Financial Goals



With the holiday gift giving season behind us and the annual consumer electronics show a few days away, the thoughts of gadget lovers everywhere are turning to ways to make room for the latest and greatest.

New devices appear faster than we can keep up with them. But that also implies rapid extinction and devices become obsolete almost as soon as we unwrap them. As a result, our lives—and our landfills—become encrusted with the sediments of consumer choice.

Omar Shahine likes to stay up-to-date. For example, he recently upgraded his Canon camera by replacing the model he purchased less than a year ago. But Shahine helped to pay for the new camera by selling the old one for about 65% of the original price.

Reuse, it has been said, is the best form of recycling. Between 100 and 125 million cell phones are replaced or discarded in the United States every year. Extrapolating from a 2007 study by iSuppli, we are approaching something like a billion used cell phones in the USA, with about 10% being dumped in landfills and about 37% being dumped in bottom drawers.

Unlike Shahine, many of us hang on too long to gadgets we no longer use. We may intend to turn them over in one way or another, but we hesitate, unsure of what to do. Essentially we have three choices: sell, donate or recycle.

Cashing In

The obvious outlets for used electronics are auction or classified sites like eBay and Craigslist. If you have the time, you’ll probably negotiate a higher price for your old items, in part depending on how many other sellers are offering the same items at the same time.

Sites like Gazelle trade some of the profit for a lot of the hassle. Gazelle claims to be the nation’s largest “recommerce” company and to have found new homes for 20,000 used mobile phones, digital cameras, MP3 players, gaming consoles and other devices. To use the site, you search to see if your device is accepted, then answer a few questions before the site approximates its value. If you accept, Gazelle will send you a postage paid box to send in the item for approval and payment.

As with many things in life, timing is everything. Gazelle is what Shahine used to get $264 for his Canon G10 (original price $408). “The key is to sell something while it is still considered pretty up-to-date, and stay current on the technology curve. I can usually recoup about 50-75% of the original cost that way. If you wait too long the thing you are trying to sell isn’t worth anything (and you spent too much time using old technology),” Shahine explains. “A lot of people I know buy new gadgets and just keep the old one lying around until it is of no use to anyone and they have to give it away or recycle it.” Likewise, when the iPhone 3GS came out, he was able to sell his 3G to finance most of the new purchase.

Donate and Deduct

Selling used electronics generally involves proving the that devices still work. Another option is to donate your old electronics to charity and take the deduction on your income taxes. Generally, electronics such as cell phones, PDAs and digital cameras depreciate at about 20-30% annually, so it doesn’t pay to procrastinate. (Check with your accountant before you do this.)

Organizations such as Recycling for Charities (RFC) accept mobile phones, PDAs, Mobile Pocket PCs, iPods, digital cameras, etc. regardless of their working condition. RFC will refurbish and sell the device if possible and recycle if not, then donate to charity about half of their return of the item’s fair market value at the time. Values ranging from $1 to $100 for a phone, camera or digital player. Be sure to deactivate the service associated with the phone and erase the address book. RFC promises to further electronically wipe the phone’s memory.

Save the Planet

Even if it’s not worth selling or donating, recycling your devices has two benefits (not counting making more room in your drawer). The first benefit is keeping toxic substances—especially from batteries—out of landfills and seeping into groundwater. Mobile handsets and other devices can also be mined for renewable materials from plastics and glass to gold, silver and coltan. Coltan is an extremely rare mineral found primarily in the Congo and demand for it is linked to both fueling bloody conflicts and decimation of the mountain gorilla population in the region.

More and more manufacturers and retailers are accepting eWaste to earn your business. Depending on which state you are in, manufacturers include Apple, Canon, Gateway, HP LG, Motorola, Nokia, Panasonic, Samsung and Sony Ericsson. Retailers including Best Buy, Costco, WalMart and Radio Shack. AT&T, T-Mobile, Sprint and Verizon all have recycling programs, as well. Recycling may even be worth a credit towards your next purchase.

Keep a Spare

Finally, while this is supposed to be about getting rid of old phones and other gadgets, I’d recommend keeping at least one lying around. Especially if you use a GSM-based service like T-Mobile or AT&T, it’s easy enough to swap your SIM card if your current phone ever goes bad—or to drop in a local SIM card to use while traveling overseas. And even if you don’t use it, I guarantee you’ll get a call from a friend or relative asking, “Hey do you have an old phone I can borrow?” And then they’ll owe you one. That’s value.

Steve Barth blogs about work, play, society and politics at Reflexions.


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