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world in regulating e-waste, but the good news is that there are solutions out there for responsibly disposing of your outdated equipment

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Dell has loftier ambitions for the future. Strathmann says the company is looking at new technologies that could help it recover that last 2%. It also has a "design for the environment" program that promotes designing products that require less energy, use fewer toxic materials and can be disassembled easier and more completely to reclaim every bit.

Other manufacturers with consumer recycling programs include Hewlett-Packard Co., Lenovo Group Ltd.,   Apple Inc. and Gateway Inc. Like Dell, many manufacturers are also pushing more environmentally friendly design. Apple, for example, recently announced its efforts to further reduce toxic materials in its products.

Retailers are doing their part, too. Staples Inc. in Framingham, Mass., recently announced that it will work with Amandi Services Inc., an electronics recycling company, to allow customers to drop off used equipment for recycling at its stores. Customers will have to pay a $10 fee for large items, but they won't have to pay for small components such as keyboards and mice.

Best Buy Co. in Minneapolis is likewise on board with electronics recycling. According to the company, its programs recycled more than 30,000 tons of e-waste in 2006. Consumers can drop off cell phones, rechargeable batteries and ink-jet cartridges for free at kiosks inside every U.S. Best Buy store. Or they can pay nominal fees to have Best Buy take back TVs and computer monitors. And they can watch for company-sponsored weekend recycling events in store parking lots, where the store collects computers, monitors, printers, fax machines, TVs, audio equipment, VCRs and DVD players for recycling.

Best Buy spokeswoman Kelly Groehler says the company sees its programs as a way to help serve the customer -- after all, if they're buying something new, they generally have to get rid of something old. Moreover, though, she says Best Buy sees it as part of its corporate responsibility.

But in the end, consumers need to take more responsibility, too. "If you look at the volume [of what we're recycling], it's a long way from what we sell. You do have customers who are more progressive in their thinking, but it's really on us to tell them about these programs and to remind them to take advantage of them," Groehler says.

She adds, "We think everyone has to share responsibility. Everyone has to do their part."

What to do

1. Don't wait too long to dispose of old electronics. The older the equipment, the less likely it can be refurbished and reused, which is the most ecological option available.

2. Destroy your data, even if you're recycling with a company that wipes hard drives clean. You must do more than delete the material. You need to run software designed to destroy the data. Low- and no-cost options for Windows are available both in stores and online (look for software that will overwrite or completely remove data from your hard drive), and Mac OS X comes with its own built-in data-removal tools.

3. Sell. Once your hard drive is wiped clean, try Craigslist, eBay or an old-fashioned tag sale.

4. Donate. Schools, charities and nonprofits might be interested in your used computer. Just be sure to ask before donating -- you don't want to dump your old stuff on someone who can't use it. Also, check out the federal Environmental Protection Agency's list of donation programs and TechSoup's Ten Tips for Donating a Computer.

5. Recycle. You might have to do some digging to find the most convenient or cost-effective option, but recycling programs are available to just about everyone. Ask your city, town or county government about community recycling events. Check with the equipment's original manufacturer or the retailer where you made the purchase to see if they have take-back programs. Seek out a private recycler if the other options lead nowhere.

6. Get answers. Whether you're using your town's recycling program or one sponsored by a local store, find out how all components are handled. Ask whether the company does multipass wipes to destroy all data; performs audits that detail where every pound of material brought in ends up; has environmental management certifications or systems, such as ISO 14001 or certifications from the International Association of Electronics Recyclers (IAER) or the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries (ISRI); and has a no-landfill policy or prohibits shipment of waste overseas. A more complete list of questions for recyclers is available at the Electronic Industries Alliance Web site.

Pratt is a Computerworld contributing writer in Waltham, Mass. Contact her at marykpratt@verizon.net.

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Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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