Electronics Recycling

Retiring your old system and peripherals without using the landfill

Once upon a time, when electricity was a wondrous new thing, the most people might have had was a radio. Built using large vacuum tubes, they were engineered to last for decades. Now, it's not unusual to have electronic devices that range from programmable toasters to iPODs no larger than a deck of cards to play music and movies. Blackberries and even cell phones allow users to hook into the Web 24/7, take photos, as well as play games and communicate. And all of these devices have been designed to be obsolete as soon as they leave the factory.

The goal of manufacturers is to entice you to constantly upgrade your communications devices annually. When a device breaks, repair isn't usually an option. If it's within warranty, you'll return it to the manufacturer or service organization for repair or replacement. Otherwise, it's assumed that you'll discard the offending item and replace it with the newest and spiffiest model. So quickly does the technology change, that software and peripherals that were current and fully functional two years ago might as well be considered an artifact of the Pleistocene era. Because their lifespan is so short, what should you do when they kick the bucket? toss them in the trash?

Well, you could, but for some reason that doesn’t feel quite right, does it? In fact, it feels downright odd to throw away consumer electronics, and it should, because many are recyclable. You might have to do a little searching around your area for options, but they do exist in most cities. A few examples of electronics that can be recycled include:

Why recycle?

Electronics waste ... e-waste ... can be hazardous to the environment because electronics contain materials such as lead, mercury, and cadmium. On average, only 11% of e-waste gets reused or recycled. The actual waste itself makes up only 1% of the entire municipal solid waste stream, but that percentage is growing fast—studies are showing that e-waste is increasing at three times the rate of other forms of waste. Recycling or reusing electronics conserves resources and cuts down the amount of pollution and gas emissions created when new products are manufactured.

Old electronics can be donated to organizations that screen them and then donate or sell them at a steep discount to schools, low-income families, and non-profits. If you are upgrading to new equipment but the old one still works, before you take the recycling route, consider donating it. Often you will also be eligible for a tax break if you choose this option. However, if you want to donate directly, make sure items are fully functional. Include all documentation, disks, and extras like connectors or cables, since many non-profits that accept donations don’t have the resources to fix hardware. Systems that are more than five years old are often too dated to be usable with current systems and so while functional won't be accepted.

Many companies such as Dell, Apple, and Toshiba offer electronics collections or mail-in programs as part of special events and offers. When you buy new equipment, ask about the recycling options for it. Many public and private organizations also accept computers and other electronics for recycling. For example, Free Geek (www.freegeek.org)located in Portland, Oregon, separates basic components of salvageable computers and gives them to a local industrial recycler to process the materials.

What happens to your equipment after you donate it? Though some don't want to go this in-depth into the recycling process—after all, many of us already have too much to do—if you’re interested in the process or want to know your used electronics are going to a good cause, call the recycler and ask a few questions. For example, does the recycler take only the most valuable parts and dump the rest? What happens to the more toxic elements? Will the equipment be processed here in the U.S. where environmental regulations are stricter than overseas?

A great resource for finding electronic recyclers and organizations in your area is online at http://www.eiae.org/. The Electronic Industries Alliance (EIA) website lists re-use and recycling programs by city, county, and state. It also gives you contact information, hours of operation, the kinds of electronics accepted, and how much it’s going to cost you.

Wait, I have to pay to do something good for the environment?

Unfortunately, the answer is most likely yes. Washington State is one of the few states that sticks manufacturers with the bill for recycling. Obviously, it won’t be long before electronics retailers raise their prices to include this fee, thereby making sure customers pay for it instead. California, Maine, and Washington have all passed laws regarding e-waste recycling, ensuring many free recycling facilities. Let’s hope that, eventually, other states will follow. Until then, paying that $2-$5 recycling fee is worth it to know your old equipment won’t be dumped in the nearest landfill.

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