How to dispose of old electronics in a responsible way.

Illuminating answers to environmental questions.
Dec. 29 2009 7:13 AM

Pulling the Plug

How to dispose of old electronics in a responsible way.

(Continued from Page 1)

Machines that are more than five years old should be recycled. Look for recyclers that have registered with the Basel Action Network's e-Stewards program. These companies have pledged—among other things (PDF)—not to export hazardous electronic waste to developing countries. (In the next few months, the e-Stewards will be converted into a fully fledged certification program with independent, on-site auditing.) The EPA, along with other stakeholders, has also developed a set of guidelines for electronics recycling. Facilities certified to those standards—known as R2, for "Responsible Recycling"—are just starting to be announced. There's been heated debate over the relative merits of the two programs, but the Lantern's take is that both represent a major step forward in terms of transparency and responsibility.

If you can't get access to an e-Steward, the California-based Electronics TakeBack Coalition recommends manufacturer-sponsored programs as the next best option. In many states, in fact, manufacturers are required by law to cover the cost of collecting and recycling. The caveat here is that even companies that have made strong environmental commitments may not be particularly transparent about where the material they receive ends up—depending on which downstream processors they use, there's always a danger that junked machines will land in a foreign salvage yard. But producer responsibility is a key part of the e-waste puzzle, so the Lantern believes it's worth the risk, especially if the alternative is dumping your electronics in the trash.

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Finally, if your manufacturer doesn't take back its products, the coalition suggests the comprehensive collection programs at Best Buy or Staples. For cell phones, try the mail-in programs run by Capstone Wireless and Call2Recycle, both of which have signed the e-Steward pledge.

Local recycling events organized by community groups or charities can be a good way to get rid of unwanted electronics, but environmental groups warn that the companies running these collections often sell what they stockpile to brokers, who then export it. Free events are the most dubious. If you're not asked to pay a small recycling fee—particularly for old, bulky cathode-ray televisions, whose components aren't valuable enough to offset the cost of recycling them responsibly—check to make sure that someone, like a government group or manufacturer, is footing the bill.

If all this gives you a headache, consider making the following resolution: In 2010, I will curb my e-lust. After all, the fewer electronics you accumulate, the fewer you eventually have to get rid of. The Lantern—a true child of the Silicon Valley—understands that this is a tough pledge. But isn't that the point of a New Year's resolution?

Is there an environmental quandary that's been keeping you up at night? Send it to ask.the.lantern@gmail.com, and check this space every Tuesday.

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Nina Shen Rastogi is a writer and editor, and is also the vice president for content at Figment.

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