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Why do the telcos and Apple want your old iPhone?

Mobile carrier: You can exchange your old phone for a free brand-new iPhone 14 by doing so!

You: Honestly? I’m very sure there’s a snot in the charging port on my iPhone 11.

We don’t care if the phone has been used as a toilet brush, says the cellular carrier. Just give up; also, promise to give us the next three years of your life.

Cellular providers and phone manufacturers are now fixated on obtaining your soiled old phone. Yet why?

Yes, the environment is a factor. Theoretically, trade-in schemes prevent phones from being thrown away or collecting dust in your cluttered desk drawer. And money, too.

If so many phones are being shipped, where are they going? And who makes money on them? I asked AT&T, Verizon and T-Mobile along with Apple and Samsung, and none would specify where phones end up. The most they shared was that they monitor trade-in pricing to get the best deal for customers, and that phones are either resold or recycled. Why so cagey?

So I badgered the companies that buy the phones from carriers. Many of them were also mum. Finally, U.S. Mobile Phones, which goes by USMP, let me into its warehouse. At the facility in New Brunswick, N.J., it processed more than 2.5 million traded-in devices last year—mostly Apple iPhones. I got a lot of answers by tracing one iPhone through the refurbishing process.