According to the EPA, used or unwanted electronics amounted to approximately 1.9 to 2.2 million tons of waste in 2005. Of that, about 1.5 to 1.9 million tons were primarily discarded in landfills, and only 345,000 to 379,000 tons were recycled.
But not only is this a huge amount of trash, but electronics contain many hazardous chemicals that need to be disposed of properly. Computer monitors and older TV picture tubes contain an average of four pounds of lead and require special handling at the end of their lives. Even newer tubes can contain two pounds of lead. Mercury is used in small amount in bulbs to light flat panel computer monitors and notebooks. Cadmium was widely used in ni-cad rechargeable batteries for laptops and other portables. Older electronics contain brominated flame retardants, which were widely used in plastic cases and cables. Simply tossing these items into the trash creates a major hazardous waste problem. To learn more about the magnitue and danger of our electronics waste problem, watch this great video from Good Magazine on e-Waste.
What can you do with your e-waste?
Re-use is the most sustainable option. If your electronics are in working order, or can be fixed, please consider donating them so they can be re-used. Donating used electronics for re-use extends the lives of valuable products and keeps them out of the waste stream for a longer period of time. When you donate your used electronics, you allow schools, nonprofit organizations, and lower-income families to obtain equipment that they otherwise could not afford.
There are a number of organizations you can explore for donating your electronics, including:
Computers for Schools: The Computers for Schools Program welcomes contribution of quality computer equipment and support dollars to accomplish their refurbishing work from donors across the nation.
The National Christina Foundation: A not-for-profit foundation dedicated to the support of training through donated technology. For more than two decades we have encouraged companies and individuals to donate computers and other technology, which is then matched to charities, schools and public agencies in all 50 states.
Collective Good: A mobile devices recycling resource. If you have spare mobile phones, pagers or PDAs sitting on a shelf or in a drawer, you can recycle them here in an environmentally and socially responsible manner.
Click here to learn about more electronics donation resources, from Earth911.org.
If your electronics are non-functional, then look to recycle them. This form of electronics recycling actually has its own name: e-cycling. You will need to take your electronics to a special place where they can be handled properly.
Please click here to find an electronics recycling location near you.
If you do not find one near you, you might also try searching on the site hosted by the Electronics Industries Alliance. Click here to visit the EIA e-cycling resources map.
Don't let your old TV become the Earth's problem.
Starting in February 2009, the FCC is requiring television broadcasters to convert to digital. Unfortunately this could easily spell bad news for the environment as millions of Americans find their current sets have become obsolete without the installation of a converter box. It's a highly likely scenario that many will choose to get rid of their TVs in favor of purchasing a new one that is already compatible with the new digital format. While it may seem to make sense from a financial perspective (if you have to shell out money for a converter box, why not use it toward a new television set?), it also means that millions of TVs will end up heading for landfills across the country or sent overseas for processing, exposing workers to harmful toxins like mercury and PVCs.
The FCC and retailers can certainly do their part by initiating recycling programs where consumers can drop off old sets and where the televisions will be recycled properly to prevent these chemicals from making their way into water, soil and the air.
In the meantime, there are a few things you can do to help minimize the environmental impact during this transition.
- Before you use this as an excuse to pick up the 50-inch LCD you've been eying, check to make sure your current television isn't already compatible with digital broadcasting. Many sets manufactured post-2003 already are, so look at your label - if it says "Integrated Digital Tuner," "Integrated Digital Receiver" or "Digital Receiver Built-in," your TV is already equipped to make the switch
- Consider the converter option. You can obtain two vouchers (per household) worth $40 each toward the purchase of a converter box rather than buying a new TV.
- If you decide to take the plunge and buy a new set, make sure your old one doesn't end up in a landfill. Sony offers a free recycling program for their electronics. You can also take a look at the Basel Action Network for a listing of recyclers who have a commitment not to export hazardous e-waste.
- Visit Co-op America after the jump to learn how you can take action and contact the FCC to express your concern about the potential for e-waste that will come from the switch and encourage them to set up more free electronics recycling programs like Sony's.
Read more on recycling electronics at EarthTalk