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How to get rid of your unwanted electronic devices safely and responsibly

An electronics shredder at Electronic Recyclers International (ERI)  in Indiana. The company is an  e-Stewards-certified recycler that operates eight processing facilities.
An electronics shredder at Electronic Recyclers International (ERI) in Indiana. The company is an e-Stewards-certified recycler that operates eight processing facilities. (Electronic Recyclers International)

We love our electronic devices until they get old — or we tire of them — and we want a shiny new diversion. This constant upgrading to the latest and greatest, though, is bad for the environment. Computer monitors, smartphones, TV sets and video game systems contain a mix of hazardous chemicals that must be handled properly when you dispose of them. You can’t just toss this stuff in the trash, but many people do.

Only 15 percent of the 6.9 million metric tons of e-waste produced in the United States in 2019 was collected for proper recycling, according to the Global E-waste Monitor. The rest was dumped into landfills or shipped overseas for dismantling by underpaid workers, many of them children, who toil in dangerous conditions.

“A lot of things can happen to that e-waste once it’s collected, and not all of them are good,” said Heidi Sanborn, executive director of the National Stewardship Action Council, an environmental advocacy group.

Here are your best options for responsibly offloading unwanted electronics.

Put privacy first

Before selling, donating or recycling any device with onboard storage, follow the manufacturer’s instructions about how to properly “wipe” the memory. Simply deleting the files is not enough to prevent crooks from accessing that information. Robert Siciliano, a digital security expert with Protect Now, recommends the following steps:

For Windows computers, do a factory reset and use a disk-wipe utility, such as Disk Wipe or DBAN (both free), to shred any files on the hard drive. For Macs, do a factory reset, and use the built-in disk utility or a third-party program, such as ShredIt for Macs.

For Android phones, make sure the data is encrypted, perform a factory reset, remove the SIM card, then overwrite the data with an app such as Shreddit – Data Eraser (free) or AVG Cleaner (free or subscription). For iPhones, remove the SIM card and destroy any stored data by using the “erase all contents” setting. The SIM card is either in a side panel or behind the removable battery, depending on the model.

Study: World’s pile of electronic waste grows ever higher

Donate or resell

Your unwanted laptop, smartphone or monitor may be perfect for someone who doesn’t want — or can’t afford — to buy a new one. If a device is still in working condition, you can give it to a friend or family member, or donate it to a school, Goodwill or another charitable organization. You can also try to sell that old tech yourself on eBay, Craigslist, Facebook Marketplace, Gazelle and similar websites. Finding a new home for your old technology is your most environmentally friendly option.

Or some manufacturers and retailers let you trade in working — but unwanted — electronics for gift cards, cash or credit toward purchases.

Not all e-cycling is equal

For devices that no longer work, recycling is the best solution. Many retailers — including Staples, Best Buy and Home Depot (for portable rechargeable batteries) — and numerous manufacturers make it easy to return unwanted electronics.

Not all big-box stores, though, follow responsible recycling practices. It’s hard to know whether junk haulers or even municipal trash collection services will do the right thing. Will that device with toxic materials be handled by a certified recycler that meets current environmental standards, or will it be shipped overseas, where it can pose a danger to the environment and the workers handling it?

The U.S. recycling industry has become more responsible in the past decade with the old electronics it collects. But “there’s still a lot of skulduggery going on,” said Jim Puckett, executive director of the Basel Action Network, a nonprofit group that works to stop the flow of dangerous electronic waste to developing countries.

BAN is named for the 1989 United Nations Basel Convention, which restricts shipping e-waste to developing countries. The United States signed the treaty but hasn’t legally ratified the convention’s obligations, making it one of just a few countries that isn’t compliant.

China recently stopped accepting toxic e-waste, so U.S. exporters now ship it to Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia, Pakistan, Myanmar, Bangladesh and Malaysia, where such hazardous materials often aren’t handled responsibly.

Look for recycling certification

There are two main voluntary certification programs for U.S. companies that recycle electronics: e-Stewards and Responsible Recycling (R2). The certification requirements for e-Stewards are more stringent than those of R2, most notably on the issue of preventing the export of hazardous electronic waste to developing countries. Companies certified by e-Stewards are required to follow the global Basel Convention rules.

Corey Dehmey, executive director of Sustainable Electronics Recycling International (SERI), which developed and manages R2’s standards, said that although R2 does not prohibit exporting e-waste to developing countries, “it does not allow the illegal export of electronic waste. R2-certified companies are required to do what is legal, and they cannot do what is illegal,” he said.

The e-Stewards website has a map of drop-off locations for certified recyclers, which includes most Staples stores, as well as a database of certified recycling companies.

Doing the right thing is costly

Electronics recycling is not cheap, but many companies are committed to protecting the environment and are willing to pay for proper disposal.

For example, Electronic Recyclers International (ERI), an e-Stewards-certified recycler and the largest recycler of electronic waste in North America, operates eight processing facilities and refurbishes or completely recycles everything it receives. Most of the glass, steel and aluminum gets reused by U.S. manufacturers. Plastic is shipped to Southeast Asia or Canada, where it is reshaped into new products. Circuit boards are sent to reputable recyclers in South Korea.

ERI partners with retailers such as Best Buy and Staples on their takeback programs, as well as local government e-waste collection programs in major municipalities, including New York City and Los Angeles. Other widely known clients include retailers (Amazon, Costco and Walmart) and manufacturers (Dell, Hitachi, LG, Lenovo, Panasonic, Samsung, Sony and Vizio), as well as Waste Management and Republic Services, the two largest waste haulers in the United States.

John Shegerian, ERI’s co-founder and executive chairman, said it costs considerably more to dispose of electronic waste responsibly. “We’re not the cheapest way to go, but these companies are willing to pay, because they’ve made a cultural shift to do the right thing.”

But remember, that process starts with consumers. The first step is to make sure you are careful about how you dispose of your devices.

Herb Weisbaum is a contributing editor at Washington Consumers’ Checkbook and Checkbook.org, a nonprofit organization with a mission to help consumers get the best service and lowest prices. It is supported by consumers and takes no money from the service providers it evaluates. You can access all of Checkbook’s ratings and advice free of charge until June 20 at Checkbook.org/WashingtonPost/Access.

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