Electronics recycling: Dealing with skeletons in the closet

With America Recycles Day around the corner, here are some tips and things to consider when it comes to recycling electronics and e-waste.

Martin LaMonica Former Staff writer, CNET News
Martin LaMonica is a senior writer covering green tech and cutting-edge technologies. He joined CNET in 2002 to cover enterprise IT and Web development and was previously executive editor of IT publication InfoWorld.
Martin LaMonica
5 min read

With America Recycles Day coming around on Monday, it's a good time to consider the impact of digital technology on waste.

It doesn't require too much imagination. Just visualize the obsolete cell phones, computers, TVs, modems, and tangle of wires sitting somewhere in your home--I suspect many of us have electronic stuff that's basically just baggage. The EPA estimates that nationwide there were 2.25 million U.S. tons of PCs, peripherals, TVs, and phones discarded in 2007, and e-waste is the fastest growing category of waste.

Now, think about what this tech equipment is made of. More than 1,000 materials go into the making of electronics, some of which are nasty chemicals, according to the Electronics Takeback Coalition. Heavy metals, including lead, mercury, and cadmium, are standard fare for the insides of TVs, computers, and other electronics, as well as brominated flame retardants in computers.

There are health risks during the production of these goods, but the greatest potential health impact is at the end of life, according to ETC. So to avoid getting these toxins from leaching at landfills or being burned at incinerators, it's important to recycle or donate them.

So what do you do? The first step is to collect and recycle the electronics you already have. That's getting easier to do, with more drop-off locations and online tools. But a lot more can be done, both to keep bad stuff out of the landfills and to reclaim valuable metals. In 2007, about 18 percent of TVs and PCs were recycled, and about 10 percent of cell phones were, according to the EPA.

The Electronics Takeback Coalition last month released its annual report card on how different consumer electronics and computer companies fare in their efforts to take back and recycle electronics. No company in any category got an "A" grade, and with the exception of Hewlett-Packard, printer companies in particular have a long way to go, it said.

Get the e-junk out
Cell phones are probably the easiest thing to donate or recycle, since many manufacturers will pay for shipping to return old phones and many stores now offer drop-off bins. Recellular will pay for your old phone and has handy instructions for how to erase personal data. Here is a list of few places where you can donate old phones.

If it's too old to be refurbished, you can drop it off for recycling at stores, such as Radio Shack, Best Buy, Office Depot, and Staples. You can also try Call2Recycle, which lists places to recycle cell phones and batteries.

Watch this: Death of an analog TV

Electronics stores have started taking bigger items back, too. Best Buy has drop-off bins for many things and will even offer TV and appliances pick-up services for a fee, which can be applied to a purchase. Staples has free take-back of computers, printer cartridges, and rechargeable batteries.

There are also company-specific take-back programs, including the Electronics Manufacturers Recycling Management company (MRM), which has a Web site that will show you where you can drop off electronics for recycling.

Of course, unburdening yourself of your old electronic gear isn't the only thing to consider. Thanks to more scrutiny of the electronics recycling industry, many people are concerned about exporting e-waste to poor countries, where there can be serious health impacts.

There's now a certification for electronics recycling called the e-stewards program, which appears to be gaining a higher profile. But at this point, the concentration of certified e-cyclers is very thin--a number of states have none, while others have only a handful. To find other electronics recycling locations, check out this list from the National Center for Electronics Recycling.

"Green Moore's Law" for Electronics
So for the electronics already taking up space at your house, there are options and they're growing. But many people believe that consumers--and more importantly manufacturers--need to think about disposal way before a product is even purchased.

Conceptually, that's a big shift. I suspect most people shopping for the latest Android phone or shiny laptop don't think much about what will happen when it's ready for replacing. But in these days of refreshing your phone and computer every couple of years--not to mention emerging categories, such as e-readers and tablets--it's worth thinking about the "end of life" for your gadgets and how different suppliers treat recycling and take-back.

You can check out Greenpeace's regular Guide to Greener Electronics, which rates different computer and consumer electronics manufacturers to pressure them to improve their policies. Also, the Green Electronics Council has a certification called EPEAT, which gives products, including PCs and other electronics, a gold, silver, or bronze rating based on several criteria.

Even if you don't consider the health and environmental impact of e-waste, it's worth looking into a take-back or resale program to get the residual value from your gadgets. Gazelle, for example, will give you a quick idea of how much your used gadget or cell phone is worth and will pay for shipping. Sprint earlier this year, working with eRecycling Corps, started offering a buypack program that gives you a credit for purchases.

These services reflect how more businesses are trying to make money by tapping into the giant e-waste stream we produce and consumers' increasing willingness to deal with used electronics.

Environmental activist Annie Leonard, who made the popular "Story of Stuff" video, earlier this week released the "Story of Electronics" animation. Like others, she argues that electronics manufacturers need to start designing for recycling and longer use, which she calls a "Green Moore's Law." She says manufacturers should continue the ongoing process of phasing out harmful chemicals, such as PVCs and bromide flame retardants, and design modular products so consumers can upgrade and repair electronics without having to entirely replace the product.

If you're serious about recycling, it's also worth tracking the progress of policies and regulations to increase recycling rates and limit exports.

In general, I try to buy durable, high-quality things that I plan on hold onto for a while. But even so, the refresh pace for electronics, particularly handheld gadgets, is picking up, not slowing down. Even our household lightbulbs are becoming electronics--in the form of LEDs. So next week after you take out the recycling bin, take a peek in your desk drawers and closets and get a gameplan for giving your electronic relics a second life.