Buy or repair? Recycle or donate? What are the greener options? Follow the FAQs and expert links for some answers.
Should I upgrade or repair?
First question to ask yourself: “Do I really need that new device?” Repairing old electronics or upgrading certain components instead of buying a whole new machine is the easiest way to cut down on e-waste.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, nearly 30 million desktop computers were disposed of in 2007. That’s almost triple the amount in 1999. Many environmental groups believe that manufacturers are reducing the life span of electronics and encouraging consumers to buy new devices, such as desktop computers, even when their old ones work perfectly well. This list, published by the Electronics Takeback Coalition, examines some of the trends contributing to America’s growing electronic waste.
How do I find less toxic products?
Certain electronics tend to be more harmful than others. For example, cathode-ray tube (CRT) monitors and televisions are filled with many toxic materials, including lead and brominated fire retardants, which are extremely difficult to recycle. On the other hand, some flat-screen monitors and other newer types of TVs contain high levels of mercury. To find out what substances are found in computers and other popular electronics, read the “What’s in Electronic Devices” report from Greenpeace before you make a purchase.
How can I tell how green a device is?
One option is to visit EPEAT (the acronym stands for Electronic Product Environmental Assessment Tool). Managed by the Green Electronics Council in Portland, OR, it’s an online search tool that rates companies and their products by how they score on a number of environmental questions: What is the product made from and how well is it designed? Is it built for longevity? What sort of energy does it consume? How does the company manage the product at the end of its life cycle? What sort of packaging comes with the product? And how does the company stack up overall in corporate responsibility?
If the products are much the same, how do I choose one manufacturer over another? Greenpeace publishes a regular report card that ranks leading electronics manufacturers on how environmentally friendly their practices are, including how many toxins are used in their products. In the latest report, published in March 2009, Finnish electronics giant Nokia topped the list of 17 global companies, chiefly for its take-back program for used cell phones, now operating in 84 countries.
Greenpeace also invites electronics manufacturers to submit their greenest products for evaluation on a variety of factors, including energy efficiency, use of toxic substances, upgradeability and recyclability. In the second edition of its findings, published in January 2009, Chinese computer manufacturer Lenovo scored top marks in the desktop PC category and for its L2440x wide-screen monitor, which is free of many of the toxic chemicals found in other monitors.
How do I responsibly wipe clean my hard drive? Ensuring that all sensitive data is removed from your computer before it leaves your hands involves more than simply deleting files. One of the most-trafficked videos on the tech site CNET explains how to wipe “every shred of data from your PC” and recommends what software to use.
How can I safely donate my old electronics for reuse? Donating your old computers can help low-income families, schools and nonprofit groups access equipment they might otherwise not be able to afford. Before donating, make sure your electronics are in working order and that your hard drive is wiped clean. Find out what the requirements are for donation: Many organizations, for example, will not take PCs that are more than five years old.
Be especially wary of companies that claim to donate computers overseas for charitable reasons. Often, it’s a front for shipping computers to developing countries to be dismantled for scrap. For example, 50 percent of the computers shipped to Ghana labeled as “donations” are, in fact, broken beyond repair. Junked machines are mixed in with working ones to skirt import laws and only add to the burden of Ghana’s e-waste problems. Find out as much as you can about the organization you are giving to. There are more tips about finding a responsible recycler below.
The EPA provides information on how to prepare your used electronics for donation and publishes a short list of organizations that accept donations.
How can I recycle my old electronics?
Many electronics manufacturers will allow you to return old products for recycling. Contact the manufacturer to see if they provide this service. Some companies offer it for free, while some require consumers to pay, but it often depends on the type of product. The Electronics Takeback Coalition publishes a list of companies and what take-back services they provide.
The EPA also provides information about the individual recycling programs of various manufacturers and retailers, including big box stores such as Best Buy and Office Depot as well as the online retail giant eBay. It also publishes links to some local recycling programs.
How do I find a local recycler I can trust?
A good start is to look for recyclers that belong to the e-Stewards Initiative. The project, started by the Seattle-based environmental group Basel Action Network (BAN), is a collective of electronics recyclers that have pledged to uphold a set of best practices for responsible recycling: no exporting of electronic waste to developing countries; no waste incineration or using prison labor to handle hazardous materials; and no electronics in domestic landfills.
The e-Stewards website contains a list of participating recyclers across the United States as well as information on alternative methods being used to improve recycling practices.
If my local recycler is not part of any e-Stewards program, what questions should I ask?
Ask them, do they process everything on-site? If not, they may be sending components overseas. How do they dispose of difficult items such as CRTs? Do they safeguard your personal data? The Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition provides a guide for what to look for when choosing a recycler.
What if my only option is to throw my computer in the trash?
Not only does trashing your old electronics mean that they will rot in a landfill and leach toxins, but it’s also illegal in many states. Contact your local government office about local and state requirements, and your local environmental groups for alternative solutions. This primer from the Electronics Takeback Coalition lays out the different state laws governing e-waste recycling.