How to recycle your computer

A guide to how and where to dispose of your computer so it doesn't end up in a toxic dump.

Topics: Computers,

How to recycle your computer

To prevent your old electronics from being melted down over a rudimentary stove in Guiyu, China, or being tossed into a landfill in Lagos, Nigeria, you’ll want to choose a reputable recycler. Plenty of computer recyclers operate with transparency and environmental integrity. But in the absence of a Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval for the industry, you have to ask hard questions and demand real answers.

You’ll want to ask what the recycler does with equipment, where it sends parts for materials recovery and what it does with usable machinery and components. A reputable recycler should be able to tell you where CRTs, metals and plastics are sent, and if the company exports or uses prison labor. The recycler should also be able to tell you how it handles data destruction. Also ask if the recycler or reuse organization wipes the hard drive for you and provides documentation that it has done so. Or can the recycler tell you how to do this before you let go of your equipment?

If you are donating your equipment to a reuse organization, ask if equipment is tested before it is passed on for donation and if the company only ships working equipment. Ask who their recipient organizations are. You want to make sure equipment is going directly to qualified recipients, not speculative brokers. This helps prevent the kind of dumping BAN witnessed in Nigeria. Also check out FreeGeek in Portland, Ore., which builds computers out of salvaged parts from donated equipment. Its Web site has links to other similar organizations.

If the answer to any of these questions is, “We don’t know,” or, “We can’t tell you,” you may want to send your equipment elsewhere, as any reputable recycler or reuse organization should be able to provide answers.

One of the easiest options is to use your computer manufacturer’s recycling program. Major manufacturers are acutely aware of the liabilities associated with not handling equipment properly and don’t want to be the subject of a muckraking exposi. Virtually all U.S. manufacturers’ take-back programs charge fees, and many require packing and shipping the equipment yourself. The Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition, a good guide to responsible recycling, finds many of the manufacture take-back programs wanting and publishes a report card on the environmental effectiveness of most of them.

The Rethink Program hosted by eBay has a good computer recycling FAQ section and many useful links to recyclers, as do CompuMentor’s Tech Soup site and the EPA’s eCycling Web site. But be aware that the recyclers listed on these sites have not been vetted or approved by these organizations in any way. The public agency that handles garbage disposal and recycling in your region may also list electronics recyclers on a Web site but these lists are not vetted either. Tech Soup and Rethink both have links to data-wiping software.

The Basel Action Network Web site carries a list of electronics recyclers that have signed BAN’s stewardship pledge, under which recyclers agree not to export e-waste or add it to landfill, or use prison labor, and to document where equipment, parts and materials go. Its list includes recyclers in all parts of the U.S. The following links to select groups and manufacturers should help you find the best methods and places for recycling.

Government and nonprofit organizations U.S. EPA Plug-in to eCycling Northeast Recycling Council Northwest Product Stewardship Council Basel Action Network, Pledge Recyclers CompuMentor Goodwill Industries National Cristina Foundation eBay Rethink Program Electronic Industries Alliance International Association of Electronics Recyclers Manufacturers Apple Canon Dell Epson Gateway Hewlett-Packard IBM Lexmark Panasonic Sony Toshiba

Elizabeth Grossman is the author of "Watershed: The Undamming of America" and "Adventuring Along the Lewis and Clark Trail." Her new book, "High Tech Trash: Digital Devices, Hidden Toxics, and Human Health" will be published by Island Press in May.

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