Millions of people purchase new computers, mobile phones, printers, tablets, and other electronic devices every year. But what do you do with the old ones, especially if they no longer work?
To commemorate Earth Day (April 22), we’ll take a look at the issue of responsibly disposing electronic hardware and how you can prevent your old devices from ending up in a landfill.
Why Recycling is Important
All modern electronic devices, including your computer, your smartphone, even your DVD player, contain a wide variety of heavy metals, industrial chemicals, and other potentially hazardous components.
For example, that desktop display you may be reading this on? It may contain several pounds of lead, especially if it’s one of those large CRT models. Circuit boards contain mercury, lead, and cadmium. Electronic devices may contain trace amounts of dioxins, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), chromium, or radioactive isotopes. These chemicals and metals are quite toxic to people, sometimes even carcinogenic, and can cause significant health problems if consumed.
When these hazardous elements end up in a landfill, they can leach into the surrounding soil and groundwater. The threat to public health this kind of waste poses is so serious, many countries now strictly regulate what ends up in their landfills. In Europe, this type of waste is regulated by the Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment Directive of the European Union and by the United States National Computer Recycling Act in the US.
These types of disposal regulations, while good for the planet, can cost waste management companies time and money. As a result, unfortunately, some of them resort to sending tons of this type of waste to developing countries with fewer (or no) safe disposal regulations. As a result, discarded technical hardware waste is still a major source of pollution around the world.
Recycling is critical, then, to the reduction of this type of hazardous pollution. It allows for materials like copper, aluminum, tin, silicon, plastic, even gold to be recycled and repurposed for new goods, and it helps keep dangerous chemicals and minerals out of landfills. In fact, recycling just one computer and monitor, instead of throwing them away, can save 539 pounds of fossil fuel, 48 pounds of chemicals, and 1.5 tons of water, according to Wikipedia.
What Should Be Recycled?
When we talk about recycling electronics, we don’t just mean your computer.
Below is a list of many items you should never throw in your trash:
- Desktop computers
- Laptops & tablets
- Monitors & televisions
- Internal and external hard drives
- Mice, keyboards, remotes, cables, and other peripherals
- DVD players, iPods, and other electronic media devices
- Ink cartridges
- Batteries, especially lithium ion batteries
Whenever you need to get rid of these items, consider recycling them rather than tossing them in the trash can. Visit your municipal or city website to learn more about the rules concerning your local waste disposal.
Once you’re ready to safely get rid of your old devices, first make sure to do the following:
- Backup (and verify backup of) all your data to an external hard drive or transfer it to your new computer.
- Erase your computer’s hard drive, or reset your device to factory settings, and double check that you can no longer access it. This will ensure no one else can access your files and private data.
- Bring your device to the recycling center, retail store, or other location to dispose of the item. If you need to ship it, be sure to pack it securely so it cannot be damaged in transit. Damaged devices may end up being unusable and therefore become trash.
If you’re not sure how to erase your hard drive or device, check with the manufacturer’s website for instructions. For computers, Earth911.com offers a few handy tips for ensuring your hard drive is erased completely and thoroughly.
Once you’ve cleaned your machine, you’ll need to take it somewhere for proper recycling. Since waste disposal and recycling programs vary widely depending on your location, we’ve listed some alternatives to disposal below.
- Donate it. There are a number of nonprofit organizations that will refurbish your old equipment and give them a second life in schools or underserved communities. One such organization in the US is InterConnection, and Computers4Africa is one of many other nonprofit organizations in the UK.
Also, some organizations refurbish older-model cell phones as emergency devices for people who cannot afford a phone, such as the elderly, children, and the homeless. In the US, cell phones can call 911 even without a cell provider, making them essential for at-risk citizens in your community. You may see large clear boxes in shopping centers to collect unwanted phones for this purpose.
- Sell it. You might consider placing an ad on Craigslist or in other local classifieds. Even if your device no longer works, some tech hobbyists and engineers love fixing and rebuilding older computer models, so even if you have a Mac SE from 1989, you may well find an enthusiastic buyer. Just keep in mind that when you sell your old components, you probably won’t recoup much of your original investment, but you’ll be doing your part to make the world a cleaner place.
- Go through manufacturer programs. Some electronics manufacturers that offer a recycling or buy-back program for used electronics include:
- Use an employer recycling option. Find out if your employer offers electronics recycling on site. Many government and private employers have entire divisions set up to handle electronic waste, and may even allow you to turn in your personal devices to recycle.
- Give to a good cause. In the US, you can take any computer or electronic equipment in any condition to a Goodwill thrift store. Goodwill provides education, experience, and career services for their staff by training them to refurbish and recycle donations equipment as appropriate. This supports their mission of supporting the disadvantaged members of our community and allows low-income residents to purchase computer equipment at an affordable cost.
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