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When Cool Becomes Junk

Why it’s so hard to get rid of old electronics

With spring cleaning nearly done—at least in our imaginations—many of us face the question of what to do with our electronic clutter. Over time, our homes become technological graveyards of outdated or broken computers, cell phones, TVs, printers, and more. What to do with all our discarded electronics?

The easiest thing may be to just toss the carcasses in the trash. But there are good reasons to recycle—including both the environmental impact and the sheer quantity. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that Americans discarded more than 2.4 million tons of electronics in 2010—and only about a quarter of that was recycled. When thrown into landfills or burned, hazardous materials such as lead, mercury, and cadmium can leach or be released into the environment. Often, electronic equipment also contains components or metals such as steel or aluminum, which can be reused.

Many states have also begun to limit how electronics can be thrown away—for example, North Carolina has banned the disposal of televisions and computer equipment in landfills.

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Eco Citizen

Someone might love your old computer

Before tossing out a computer that still works, consider upgrading—perhaps by adding more memory or swapping out hardware. Another option is to check with local schools or charitable organizations to see if they have any use for older but still working electronics. Sometimes one person’s e-trash can be another’s treasure.

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Recycling Resources

Lots of places will help you e-cycle

Before tossing old electronics out, check with local government and the electric cooperative in your area, to see what kinds of electronic recycling programs are available. Some towns or counties offer periodic electronics collection drives, and some private firms offer recycling as well. The Web site has a search tool where you can enter your zip code and search for electronics recycling options in your area. The Environmental Protection Agency also has a searchable Web site through its “ecycling” program, found at

Certain retail stores such as Best Buy and Staples will accept used electronics—promising to responsibly recycle them and to destroy any data that might be lurking on a hard drive. Check the stores’ Web site for information about exactly what’s accepted and what’s not.

Some computer manufacturers, including Dell and Apple, have recycling programs for their own products—sometimes tied to new purchases, sometimes not, and not necessarily limited to their own products. And some manufacturers offer either drop-off programs at their stores or mail-in recycling options (sometimes for a fee) for products they’ve made.

When recycling computers or smartphones that might contain private communications or financial information, check to see what procedures the company or agency uses to make sure the stored data is erased or destroyed.

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