For many of us, life without electronic devices is hard to imagine, whether it be computers, MP3 players, cell phones, digital cameras, printers or fax machines. Technology improves very quickly, leading many to throw out old models in favor of new ones, usually after less than 2 years of use. And, if you're anywhere close to as clumsy as I am, your cell phone gets dropped and damaged even before that 2 year contract is up.
These items often contain valuable components that can still be used, as well as dangerous ones that should not be allowed to leach into landfills, making it beneficial to consumers and producers alike to eliminate them from the waste stream. However, it is estimated that the US created 1.5 billion pounds of e-waste in 2006, including 44 million computers and televisions. Currently, electronic waste is the fastest growing segment of waste, and, though it still makes up a small percentage of the total, it is likely responsible for more than half of the heavy metals in landfills.
Electronic waste, or e-waste, in addition to wasting useable aluminum, copper, and plastics, contains dangerous ingredients like lead and mercury, which can leach into the soil and water. The heavy metals in these materials and the chemical solvents and plastics used with them can cause brain damage, kidney damage, cancers, hormone disruption, and immune and reproductive harm if humans are exposed to them. Unfortunately, though, we throw away more than three-quarters of our electronics rather than reusing and recycling them, and this means that they end up in landfills where they readily seep into the earth.
Older model TVs and monitors, known as cathode-ray tube (CRT) models, contain several pounds of lead. Lead can be dangerous even in small amounts, so one can only imagine the problems awaiting us if consumers nationwide discard their old TVs in order to meet new digital standards, which take effect nationwide in February; it has been estimated that 2008 sales of digital televisions will reach 32 million. If you do purchase a new television, be aware that Samsung (beginning in October), LG, and Sony will accept their old models back for free, and will accept other brands for a fee. If your TV is still in working condition, you can also donate it to Goodwill or the Salvation Army.
In addition to monitors, the rest of your computer contains dangerous chemicals, too. Circuit boards, for example, often contain mercury, cadmium, and lead. Luckily, many computer manufacturers now offer take-back programs. Apple, for example, accepts any old computer if you are purchasing a new Apple computer and gives a discount on a new iPod if you turn in your older model. Dell and Lenovo take back any of their own computers for free (sometimes even paying you), but Gateway's and HP's programs include a fee. Next time you purchase a computer, be sure to purchase from a manufacturer offering a take-back program for your old computer, unless you plan to donate it or recycle it elsewhere. These programs do change and have terms and conditions. Check out computertakeback.com for a list of programs and details, and consult the manufacturers. For a list of places to donate an old computer, check out sharetechnology.org or mygreenelectronics.org. You can also drop off an old computer for recycling at the Lakewood Refuse & Recycling Facility on Berea Road. If you have an ever-growing collection of CDs, you can recycle those, too. The CD Recycling Center of America will recycle them for free (though you pay to ship them).
Cell phones may seem like a small amount of waste, as they are getting smaller in size all the time, but, with an average usage life of only a year and a half, they are being discarded in multitudes. Cell phone coatings sometimes contain lead, and the batteries include toxins such as cadmium, lithium, or, that's right, more lead. Many stores will take old cell phones, including Staples and Office Max, and you can also donate (or sell) it through a variety of programs, including ReCellular and Collective Good.
Rechargeable batteries (like the ones in your cell phone, laptop, digital camera, or camcorder) can be dropped off for recycling through the Rechargeable Battery Recycling Corporation's Call2Recycle program at an increasing number of stores, including Radio Shack, Home Depot, and Target. Just bring in a cellular phone or a battery in a plastic bag (one battery per bag) and they'll take care of the rest, including donating some of the proceeds to charity.
On September 19th and 20th, the Steelyard Commons Best Buy will be having an electronics recycling event where they will accept computers, printers (and printer cartridges), fax machines, TVs, stereos, DVD players, camcorders, phones, and rechargeable batteries from 10am-4pm, so if you already have e-waste around the home that was headed for the landfill, load it up and take it to this event. Don't forget that taking care of your electronics is one of the best ways to reduce e-waste - a working computer or phone doesn't need to be discarded. Consider a protective sleeve for your laptop, cell phone, or mp3 player and clean your electronics (as recommended by the manufacturer) regularly.