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world in regulating e-waste, but the good news is that there are solutions out there for responsibly disposing of your outdated equipment

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Consider, for instance, what's happening in Washington state. Some 40% of the population there lives in counties that have disposal bans on electronics, says Jay Shepard, a policy adviser for the state's Department of Ecology. In addition, state lawmakers in 2006 passed a law requiring manufacturers who sell computers, laptops, monitors and TVs to provide for recycling these products when their owners are done with them.

The state is still writing the regulations needed to implement the take-back law, which requires manufacturers who sell products in the state to register, pay administrative fees and label their products.

While the response from manufacturers has been mixed, Shepard says the state's residents are excited to have the program in place -- even if it's not going to be fully implemented until 2009.

Other states with e-waste recycling laws include California, Maine and Maryland, and according to the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition, about a dozen more states are expected to introduce similar bills within a year. Just this month, Minnesota and Texas lawmakers passed bills requiring electronics manufacturers to pay for collection and recycling of household e-waste. The governors of both states are expected to sign the bills.

Getting the word out

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Plano, Texas, is trying to tackle the problem through information rather than legislation. The city offers residents information about computer and electronics manufacturers that have take-back programs, and it has a free online listing service where residents can post their used products, including electronics, to see if other local residents or nonprofits want them. In addition, Plano has a monthly electronics collection, where residents can pay a nominal fee -- $10 for a TV, $5 for a monitor -- to have the equipment recycled.

Intechra, which has a contract with the city to recycle the material, has collected 495 units weighing 58,800 pounds during the past 12 months, says the city's sustainability communications coordinator, Melinda Sweney.

"Diverting electronics from landfills through recycling is essential because it keeps hazardous materials like lead, copper and mercury out of our water supply. It is always the responsible alternative to throwing items in the garbage," Sweney says.

But Sweney acknowledges that some residents still put out their computers with the regular trash. The city has a way to help combat that, though: The trash-truck drivers leave preprinted tags that encourage the residents to take advantage of the city's recycling program next time. (They do, however, haul away the electronics with the trash because there are no laws against it, Sweney says.)

"The No. 1 challenge is awareness," says Slack, Intechra's CEO. "But awareness is growing, awareness that the consumer should be concerned about environmental issues and the data issues."

Intechra, which also recycles the e-waste for Wylie, Texas, as well as other communities and companies, has a no-landfill policy and reuses or recycles nearly everything -- down to the cardboard and plastic wrap used in shipping. It also destroys all data on the devices, so that any hard drives refurbished for the secondary market pose no threat to the original owners.

Other options

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While Plano and Wylie make it easier for residents to do the right thing, consumers everywhere are getting help with recycling. Computer manufacturers and retailers are implementing more, and more extensive, recycling programs that offer the same level of environmental and social protection as private recyclers like Intechra.

Just look at Dell Inc. in Round Rock, Texas. It was the first computer manufacturer to offer consumers free recycling of its own products at any time with no replacement purchase required. It's interesting to note, too, that about 98% of a computer processed by a Dell-certified recycling vendor can be either reused or recycled back into raw materials.

"Our goal is to make it as easy for consumers as possible to recycle," says Joe Strathmann, senior manager of Dell's Asset Recovery Services in Austin.

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