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.

Where do old electronics end up? Click image to expand.
Where do old electronics end up?

I just got a new laptop for Christmas and don't know what to do with my old one. I've heard that most electronic waste ends up being exported to Asia, where poor laborers recycle the scrap under unhealthy, unsafe conditions. How do I get rid of my old computer in an environmentally and socially responsible way?

Electronic waste, or e-waste, is a growing concern for a number of reasons. First of all, it's literally growing—recent reports indicate that the planet will soon generate 50 million metric tons of discarded computers, phones, and televisions annually. That's a small fraction of all the trash we produce, but those mountains of dead gadgets pose a special problem, thanks to the range of hazardous components they contain—stuff like lead, mercury, and cadmium. In light of this, several states have recently passed landfill bans on e-waste.

But the social justice issue you bring up—the fact that a lot of e-waste ends up in informal salvage yards in Africa and Asia—has captured much of our attention lately. The Lantern, for example, vividly remembers this 60 Minutes segment from 2008, in which correspondent Scott Pelley followed a shipment of old TVs and computer parts collected during a community recycling event in Denverto Guiyu, China, a "wasteland" where workers use dangerous, primitive methods—like open-air burning and acid baths—to exhume precious metals from the scrap. Toxic residue from these operations can cause serious health and pollution problems—one 2007 study showed that children in Guiyu had significantly higher levels of lead in their blood than did children in a neighboring village with no e-waste processors.

The Basel Action Network, the watchdog organization that accompanied Pelley to China, estimates that 80 percent of the electronic waste collected for recycling in America actually gets shipped to developing countries, with most winding up in informal salvage yards like the one in Guiyu. That's why BAN and other activists would like to halt all exports of hazardous e-waste to poor countries. Recycling trade groups disagree with BAN's assessment and argue that putting a stop to exports would penalize those countries with adequate facilities.

It's a complicated problem, but one that's worth our attention—even if, as individuals, our solutions may be imperfect. So before you lose yourself in your new laptop—or music player, or mobile phone—spare a few minutes thinking about how to send your old gadget to a peaceful, responsible rest.

Your first step is to figure out whether your old device is still usable. If so, find it a new home. Older relatives, who may not need quite as much processing firepower, are good candidates. (Papa Lantern enjoys Bollywood soundtracks and NPR podcasts on his hand-me-up iPod.) If you decide to sell or donate your device to a stranger, make sure to scrub your personal information (PDF). And don't give anything away unless it really does work; otherwise, you're just pushing the disposal problem onto someone else.

Craigslist and eBay are always options for selling a machine in good condition. It may not be easy to give away an old computer, though. Harried nonprofit employees often lack the time or technical expertise to wipe data or configure old software systems, but many organizations around the United States will take computers and fix them up. Here's one comprehensive list of donation options from the Community Microsoft Authorized Refurbisher program, which provides low-cost Windows licenses to companies that install them on spruced-up, secondhand computers and then redistribute those machines.

When evaluating your choices, look for evidence that donated computers are being put back into circulation: Ask for the names of recipient schools and charities. A reputable refurbisher should also be able to provide a description of how they repair and test their machines, and offer free or low-cost hard drive wiping. If you do decide to donate your computer, do it fast—even if a machine can be repaired, it won't do anyone much good if it's too old to run current software.

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.

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.