New ways to get rid of old computers

The U.S. may still lag behind much of the world in regulating e-waste, but the good news is that there are solutions out there for responsibly disposing of your outdated equipment

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Solutions are coming

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Jake Player sees opportunity in such statistics. Player is president of TechTurn Inc., an Austin company that works with businesses to refurbish and recycle their old electronics. He says TechTurn is gearing up to offer consumers the same services.

"The research we've done [shows] that consumers do have a lot of computers and IT peripherals in their attics, their closets or storage. We're trying to figure out how to help consumers by providing programs to take those computers back," he says.

Company research shows that computer owners are concerned about the environmental and health issues surrounding e-waste as well as the security of personal data stored on their discarded computers. Yet, despite these concerns, 90% of the 245 computer owners the company surveyed said they didn't know they could use a private recycler like TechTurn to get rid of their old PCs and the rest of their outdated gizmos and gadgets. The research also shows that more than 60% of respondents are willing to pay for the service.

TechTurn is still working out logistics, but Player says it plans to offer consumers a way to drop off their old computers, MP3 players, PDAs and similar equipment, pay a fee and know that their electronics and any data on them will be handled responsibly. The goal is to have a pilot program later this year, he adds.

Laws of the land

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But how much effect programs like TechTurn's will have is up for debate. After all, we don't recycle most of our everyday recyclables. The EPA estimates, for example, that we recycle only 50% of all paper, 34% of all plastic soft drink bottles and 45% of all aluminum beer and soft drink cans.

Moreover, many U.S. residents have no legal obligation to recycle their computers and other e-waste; there is no national statute requiring them to do so, and according to Matt Hale, director of the the EPA's Office of Solid Waste, a national mandate to recycle computers, electronics and related components is not on the horizon.

Instead, Hale says, the federal government is working to increase recycling options and opportunities for consumers "so that everybody with a piece of electronics can find a place for recycling." He says the EPA is working with state and municipal governments as well as manufacturers and retailers to develop collection programs and increase consumer awareness about the issue. "Ease of recycling is a key element to get items recycled," he says.

While enforced recycling of electronic equipment doesn't seem to be in the works, legislation is pending in Congress that would add a recycling "e-fee" to the price of new electronics. If passed, the National Computer Recycling Act (download PDF), introduced in January of this year by U.S. Rep. Mike Thompson (D-Calif.) and being reviewed by the Subcommittee on Environment and Hazardous Materials, would impose a charge of up to $10 on new laptops, monitors, televisions and other electronic devices to cover the cost of their proper disposal down the road.

Other nations are more aggressive in this area. The European Union enacted the Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) Directive and Restriction of Hazardous Substances (RoHS) Directive, both of which put more responsibilities on manufacturers to take back their equipment and reduce the use of hazardous materials in their products. China in March implemented its version, called Management Methods for Controlling Pollution Caused by Electronic Information Products Regulation, or China RoHS.

Moreover, many industrialized countries -- although not the United States -- have agreed to stop the export of hazardous waste, including e-waste, to developing countries as part of the Basel Convention.

That's not to say, however, that Americans aren't taking action. Local and state governments are passing laws that mandate recycling by their constituents or the businesses that sell electronics to them.

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