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Safely Recycle Old Computers and Gadgets

Elizabeth Wasserman
Find Under: Security

These days, it’s hard for many families to resist upgrading to the latest computers and electronic gadgets. Laptops are getting faster, better and cheaper. The latest cell phones allow you to make cheap wireless calls and surf the web, email and take photos. iPods and digital cameras also have come down in price as quickly as they’ve added new features.

However, once you upgrade to a new must-have computer or gadget, the question then becomes: What do you do with your old gear?

"First of all, in California and several other states, it’s against the law to throw away electronics in the trash because there are toxic components that leach into the ground and environment," advises Pam Knighten, administrative manager of the Computer Recycling Center in Santa Rosa, Calif. "Everything can be recycled. But make sure you take it to some place that recycles responsibly and doesn't send it overseas to just dump it in other places."

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that there are about two million tons of used electronics, including computers and televisions, discarded each year. The EPA estimates that between 2000 and 2007, as many as 500 million personal computers became obsolete and entered the municipal solid waste stream. Add to this the estimated 128 million cell phones that are put into retirement each year -- only 20 percent of which are recycled -- and you have an unwelcome environmental problem because computers and other electronics often contain a toxic cocktail of harmful chemicals including lead, mercury and chemicals that release dioxins if burned.

To the growing number of consumers who consider themselves "green," this is not a pretty picture. If you feel the same way, here are some steps to take to safely dispose of your old computers and other gadgets:

Tip No.1: Check out manufacturer give-back programs
Increasingly, equipment manufacturers, such as HP and Dell, will agree to take back your old devices when you make a new purchase. The Computer Take Back Campaign, a coalition and web site that put pressure on computer and electronics manufacturers to start recycling their old products, has a list of these manufacturer recycling programs. "Find out if the company that is selling you the computer has a take-back program," advises Lauren Ornelas, campaign director for the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition, a grassroots organization, which is part of the Computer Take Back Campaign. "It's different with every company."

Tip No. 2: Donate your old devices
A growing number of organizations accept old computers that are still functioning for donation to charities. The EPA’s web site lists a variety of groups that accept donated computers, including My Green Electronics, which is run by the Consumer Electronics Association. Also check out TechSoup, run by CompuMentor, a nonprofit technology assistance agency, where nonprofits can access donated and discounted technology products. The Computer Recycling Center, founded in 1991, is one of the oldest computer recycling organizations. The group works with businesses and municipalities and schedules-collection and drop-off programs. Those programs have succeeded in diverting millions of pounds of computer equipment from landfills. "We first see if items can be reused or fixed and repaired," says Knighten, "and then we recycle them to someone who is going to use them in a good way." The organization provides recycled computers to organizations that help those in need, such as foster children and elderly citizens.

Tip No. 3: Recycle the right way
There are plenty of groups that claim to do computer and cell phone recycling these days. But in a recent report, the Basel Action Network, a nonprofit environmental organization, found that many old electronics from the U.S. were ending up in places such as China and Nigeria, where they weren’t being recycled at all. Instead, the report found, these devices were being burned or landfilled -- along with their toxic substances. That’s why Ornelas advises consumers to do some research before they choose a computer or cell phone recycler. The Basel Action Network has a list on its web site of recyclers that have agreed to their Electronics Recyclers’ Pledge of True Stewardship, which requires participating groups to pledge that they don’t send electronics to landfills or incinerators, don’t ship electronic waste to developing countries, and follow environmental management principles.

Tip No. 4: Take some steps before you toss
It should go without saying that before disposing of your old computer, cell phone or any other gadget, make sure you take steps to erase all sensitive personal information -- such as financial records, old emails, passwords and any personal files. It’s important to eliminate all traces of data from your computer hard drive or the memory drives of these other devices. Otherwise, if your data is recovered, it can lead to possible identity theft or other fraud. There are many free and commercially available programs that help you erase information from your hard drive. In addition, some recycling and donation programs actually offer to destroy your hard drive so that the information can never be recovered. No matter which steps you take to more carefully dispose of old computers and gadgets, your effort will be worth the reward -- for the environment and others. "The good thing about reuse is that these computers go to other people who can't afford to go out and buy something new," Knighten says. "It really helps level the playing field and provides access for all who are interested in using computers."

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