Eco Wise

Go Go Gadget Recycling!

Don't just toss 'em: Some retailers accept unwanted electronic devices for recycling.
Don't just toss 'em: Some retailers accept unwanted electronic devices for recycling. (Istockphoto)
Sunday, November 25, 2007

It's hard to imagine life without cellphones, computers and iPods. And as technology advances, so does the rate at which we buy gadgets just to keep up. While constantly upgrading your electronics is hard on the wallet, it's also harmful to the planet -- and possibly your health.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, 1.5 million to 1.9 million tons of unwanted electronics (also called e-waste) was deposited in U.S. landfills in 2005. Not only is this a waste of resources, but these items contain hazardous chemicals and toxic metals such as flame retardants, arsenic, mercury and cadmium; an average of four pounds of lead is inside each cathode-ray tube TV and computer monitor. These chemicals can leach from landfills into drinking water reserves, or, if incinerated, they're released into the air.

Recycling is the obvious solution, but even it must be approached with caution. The Basel Action Network, a Seattle-based nonprofit organization that studies the global toxic waste trade, estimates that 50 to 80 percent of U.S. electronics set aside for recycling are smuggled to India and China, where environmental and health regulations for recycling are lax. A study by the Chinese Academy of Sciences published this year in the journal Environmental Science & Technology found that the air in Guiyu, a Chinese city that hosts many of the country's e-waste recycling facilities, has the highest documented levels of two toxic chemicals -- polychlorodibenzo-p-dioxins (PCDDs) and polychlorodibenzofurans (PCDFs) -- in the world.

Most municipalities have drop-off sites for household electronic waste, but these public services are often contracted out to private recyclers, which may or may not be reliable. If you choose this route -- or use a private recycling service directly -- do your homework and ask questions. "A reputable recycler can talk you through what happens to your electronics and provide references," says Elizabeth Wilmot, president of Turtle Wings, a Maryland-based e-waste recycling service. For a fee, Turtle Wings (1771 Olive St., Capitol Heights, 301-583-8399, will pick up from households; it also takes drop-offs at a lesser cost.

Some other e-waste recycling tips:

- If your goods are only a few years old and still work, see whether a school, charity or church could use them.

- Most electronic brands accept their own products for recycling, although you'll have to pack and ship the items yourself. "A company with a reputation is absolutely trustworthy," Wilmot says. "If you're a corporation, you're not going to be dumping monitors." The EPA's eCycling program lists Staples, Office Depot, Best Buy and Apple among its retail partners accepting household electronics. Most cellphone service providers accept used phones in their stores or via mail; check with your provider for details.

- The most effective long-term solution is for the gadgets themselves to get greener. Many electronics companies have pledged to reduce or eliminate toxic materials in their products, so as the eco-movement gains momentum, look for easily recyclable goods with longer life spans. In the meantime, be a green consumer: Don't replace your phone or TV just because a shinier, newer model is available. Stick with what you have for as long as it's useful.

-- Eviana Hartman

© 2007 The Washington Post Company