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One Person's Trash Is Another's Technology: Recycling or Donating Discarded Electronic Equipment Help Reduce E-Waste Pollution

70 percent of the heavy metals in U.S. landfills are from discarded electronics--even though the e-waste itself accounts for only two percent of the trash by volume



George Hotelling, courtesy Flickr

Dear EarthTalk: I work for an office equipment company selling copiers, fax machines, computers and printers. Each year new models come out making old ones obsolete. As a result, we have loads of trade-ins with nowhere to go. What can we do with this old equipment?
—Jeff P., Worcester, Mass.

Electronic waste, or “e-waste” as it’s called, is a growing problem in the United States and abroad, as obsolete or broken computers and other electronic equipment are taking up increasingly precious amounts of landfill space and potentially leaking hazardous substances into surrounding ecosystems.

The nonprofit Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition reports that 70 percent of the heavy metals in U.S. landfills are from discarded electronics—even though the e-waste itself accounts for only two percent of the trash by volume. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency reports that Americans trash two million tons of unwanted electronics each year—six times the amount they recycle. To make matters worse, U.S. companies often ship old equipment to poor nations whose landfills and incinerators are ill equipped, subjecting already struggling populations to lead, cadmium, beryllium, and other contaminants.

So what can be done? If your old units still work but have merely been eclipsed by newer models, then by all means donate them to a needy cause that will either put them to good use or resell them to help fund their programs. You’ll earn a tax deduction for a charitable donation and, by keeping the equipment alive, prevent the manufacture of new units and thus, if ever so slightly, reduce the footprint of your operations.

But not every charity accepts old equipment, and no one wants to spend all day calling around to find one that does. A good place to look, then, is Goodwill, which will accept your equipment and then sell it through any one of its 1,500 retail stores across the country. Proceeds fund programs to help the disabled, illiterate, homeless, and those on welfare by providing job training and placement programs. The Salvation Army runs similar programs and also typically accepts donated old office equipment.

Another option is to donate your equipment to needy schools, either directly or via a service like iLoveSchools.com, which helps teachers find free supplies and equipment for their classrooms. The National Cristina Foundation also matches donated technology with needy schools and nonprofits. Also, the website GreatNonprofits.org maintains a list of charities in need of various types of office equipment. You can also offload equipment via Freecycle, a free service that helps find homes for unwanted stuff.

While finding a new home for your old gear is preferable, recycling is also an option. Recyclers harvest parts from old equipment that can be reused or resold. Several websites, including My Green Electronics, E-cycling Central, and Earth911, list electronics recyclers across the U.S. Some of these vendors will charge a small fee to recycle an item for you; others may do it for free. Also, Office Depot, Staples and some other stores will take back used electronics—even if not purchased there—usually for a small fee.

CONTACTS: Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition, www.svtc.org; Goodwill, www.goodwill.org; Salvation Army, www.salvationarmy.org; iLoveSchools.com, www.iloveschools.com; National Cristina Foundation, www.cristina.org; GreatNonprofits.org, www.greatnonprofits.org; Freecycle, www.freecycle.org; E-cycling Central, www.ecyclingcentral.com; Earth911, www.earth911.org; Office Depot, www.officedepot.com; Staples, www.staples.com

EarthTalk is produced by E/The Environmental Magazine. GOT AN ENVIRONMENTAL QUESTION? Send it to: EarthTalk, c/o E/The Environmental Magazine, P.O. Box 5098, Westport, CT 06881; submit it at: www.emagazine.com/earthtalk/thisweek/, or e-mail: earthtalk@emagazine.com. Read past columns at: www.emagazine.com/earthtalk/archives.php

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