How to Recycle E-Waste

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Intro

cleaning of old computer equipment for recycling..

Ever wondered what you should you do with all your obsolete, used, or out-of-style electronics? The answer is not to throw them in the trash. E-waste, as this growing torrent of electronics debris is called, is the fastest growing component of the waste stream, and that’s not good.

For one thing, discarded electronics are adding tons of metal and plastic to landfills. The Electronics Take Back Coalition estimates that in the U.S., we scrap about 400 million units per year of consumer electronics. According to GreenDisk.com, over 80% of “technotrash” is not being recycled.Here’s just a sample of what is getting thrown away every day:

  • Smart phones and flip phones
  • Computers, laptops, monitors, and speakers
  • Fax machines
  • Printers and printer cartridges
  • Cords and plugs
  • Chargers
  • CDs
  • Hard drives
  • Zip disks and floppy disks
  • Rechargeable batteries and rechargers
  • Music players, video players, and gaming consoles

In addition to adding to the amount of junk accumulating in landfills, electronics contain heavy metals that can be released when the equipment itself physically breaks up. These metals, which might include cadmium, lead, mercury, and other toxic compounds, can leach into groundwater and contaminate drinking water. No wonder throwing away computers and electronics with regular garbage is illegal in many states.

Plus, electronics contain many valuable, recoverable materials, like aluminum, copper, gold, silver, plastics, and ferrous metals. Recycling electronics helps conserve natural resources and reduce the amount of energy needed to produce new electronic equipment from virgin resources.

Throwing away your electronics might be convenient, but it’s not the eco-friendly option. Instead, practice one or more of the 3 R’s: refurbish, reuse, and recycle them. Here’s how:

Young man repairing computer while sitting at his working place

Refurbish Electronics

When electronics are refurbished, they’re basically given a tune-up. Broken components are repaired or replaced, the equipment is physically cleaned, and new software may be added so that the machine ends up working pretty much as good as new. If you have equipment you no longer want, don’t automatically assume no one else wants it either. Before you toss it in the trash or dump it in a recycling bin, check around to see if you can find someone who wants to refurbish it and then put it to good use.

Resell, or Donate for Reuse

If your electronics are in good working order but you’re not using them anymore or you want or need to upgrade to more sophisticated technology, don’t assume no one else wants your stuff either. There’s a vibrant market for used but working phones, laptops, and tablets on Ebay and Craigslist, so you can actually make some money on your “trash.”

Also, many charities welcome electronics donations. If you can’t find a local organization that would like your equipment, contact World Computer Exchange, which ships donated refurbished desktop and laptop computers to their partner non-governmental organizations in 82 developing countries.

Lawrenceville, GA, USA - November 23, 2013: Volunteers assist people in cars dropping off electronics and other items at Gwinnett County's America Recycles Day event.

Electronics Recycling, including Phones and Batteries

It’s actually pretty easy to recycle old electronics because so many places are willing to take them.

Big box retailers like Best Buy and Staples will accept a wide variety of electronics, from phones to laptops to tablets to cameras to televisions up to 32″. And you don’t even need to make an appointment. Just swing by and drop off whatever it is you’re getting rid of.

Municipal solid waste departments usually have a collection spot for electronics. Check with your town, city, or county online to find the location and hours of operation. Some municipalities designate a specific day every year to encourage people to clean the old electronics out of their homes. Keep an eye out for this announcement, and then take advantage of the event. Most phone stores will take your old phone and recycle it when you buy a new phone. Make sure to remove your SIM card from the old phone before dropping it off.

Call2Recycle.org makes it easy for consumers to recycle used batteries and cell phones by using their directory of collection sites. All you need to do is plug your zip code into their location finder and voilá. The nearest recycling options for you will pop up on a map, along with their addresses, phone numbers, and hours of operation.

One terrific resource is Earth911. The organization maintains a national database of recycling locations. Again, plug in your zip code and the items you want to recycle. You’ll get the name and address of a drop-off location, as well as an indicator to tell you how close the drop-off is to your home.

portable hard drive and laptop computer

Swipe Your Data Before Recycling

Remember to swipe your data clean before you toss out any old electronics, because once you throw them away, you give up your legal ownership of any data that remains. All of your information legally enters the public domain when you throw it out on a computer, reports GreenDisk. It’s critical to remove all traces of your identity from your equipment. Some operating systems retain traces of credit cards, passwords, bank routing numbers and more, even after files are deleted. As hackers get more sophisticated, so does their ability to retrieve this data.

Any number of software programs can make sure your electronics are completely data clean. WipeDrive promises to completely erase all hard drive or external storage information, including your personal data, programs, viruses, and malware. The company claims that, after using WipeDrive, “your data will be impossible to recover even with the most sophisticated tools.”

Active@KillDisk describes itself as a “hard disk drive sanitizing tool” that will destroy all data on your hard drive and USB disks.

Resist the Urge to Upgrade, but Choose ENERGY STAR When You Do

Probably the smartest way to avoid generating so much e-waste is to buy fewer electronics overall. Every year, there are new smart phone options, new tablet designs, thinner but more powerful laptops, and new games. But how much do you need any of them? Cultivate a mindset that is about extending the life of your electronics, not replacing them every year.

Remember, too, that when you replace your old equipment with the new, choose energy-efficient electronics that carry the ENERGY STAR label. This indicates that the products have met EPA’s criteria for energy efficiency.