E-Waste: What to Do With That Old Gadget

by Lisa Mastny

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Are you among the many thousands of Americans who replaced a TV, computer, cell phone, or other gadget this holiday season? If so, why not make the responsible choice and donate or recycle your old equipment, rather than just dumping it in the trash?

The first step, of course, is to try to donate any items you no longer want. Most thrift stores and charities gladly welcome donations of clean items in good working order. And even some items that don't currently work might be fixable—provided there's someone near you who can do the job. In New York, the Brooklyn-based Fixers Collective helps revive "dead" ink-jet printers, cell phones, TVs, and other items that their owners had long given up hope on.

If an item can't be fixed, your best option is recycling, rather than simply trashing an item. In 17 U.S. states, it's actually illegal to dump computers, printers, and TVs in the garbage. Connecticut, Indiana, New Jersey, New York (for businesses), North Carolina, South Carolina, and Vermont are among those that have banned electronic waste from landfills, requiring it to be recycled so its toxic materials don’t leach into groundwater. Seven of these bans took effect in 2011, and two more will take effect soon: Illinois in January 2012 and Pennsylvania in January 2013.

Meanwhile, at least 25 states have passed e-waste recycling laws. These laws require the electronics manufacturers to pay for the costs of collecting and recycling TVs, computers, laptops, and monitors. The rules save local governments money by requiring manufacturers to help cover recycling bills for participating municipal programs, including the costs of hauling and processing the e-waste.

Unfortunately, you can't just choose any e-waste recycler. Many recyclers simply export your old products, dumping them on developing countries where the workers who dismantle the products are exposed to heavy metals and other toxic components.

The wisest choice is to use a recycler that is part of the “e-Steward” network; they don’t export to developing nations, and they follow other high standards. Many also will reuse and refurbish equipment. Visit the e-Stewards website to find a responsible recycler near you.

In some cases, electronics retailers will even take back used items for recycling, even if you bought them elsewhere. Examples include Best Buy (for TVs and other electronics) and Staples (though only during scheduled recycling events). For a list of individual manufacturers who will take back used items, click here.

To learn more about e-waste recycling, check out the Electronics TakeBack Coalition's Guide to Recycling Your Electronics.

To learn more about the fascinating "life-cycle" of electronics products, watch "The Story of Electronics," below: