As I was preparing to toss out an old computer and monitor this week, I was shocked to learn they are considered hazardous wastes and to dump them could be considered criminal.
I don’t know what rock I’ve been living under and I guess I missed the memo. I had no idea that we’re not environmentally responsible if we’ve been tossing out computers, cell phones, iPods and flourescent light bulbs with the coffee grounds. I thought I was being good by replacing all my old incandescent bulbs to save on energy consumption – now I don’t know what to do.
Rapidly improving technology and a consumer thirst for all the latest gadgets are leaving people with a growing number of these old electronics. Even though they should be recycled, most end up in the trash or gather dust in the basement. Now, states and manufacturers are trying to make it easier for people to recycle these items.
Retailers are seizing on “green” marketing opportunities by launching recycling initiatives. Last month Staples announced it would accept old computers and monitors for a fee (aoubt $10). Best Buy now sponsors local drop-off events around the country, where people can bring in carloads of unused items. Office Depot began selling recycling “boxes” at $5 to $15 that customers fill with office items such as laptops and fax machines to be recycled. (The company says the cost of the box helps fund the program.)
I called the sanitation department in my community and learned that they will pick up this stuff for free. Or, I can take it to my local recycling center and pay a fee – about 30 cents a pound and I guess they sell off the reusable materials.
After more investigation, I learned that computers, televisions and other electronics contain materials such as lead, cadmium and mercury, which can pose a risk to human health and the environment. Energy Star-labeled electronics — touted as eco-friendly due to the energy they save — still contain hazardous materials. The mercury in LCD TV screens and the lead in computer monitors, for example, may contaminate soil or water if not handled properly noted There’s no federal law for the disposal of consumer electronics, though a handful of states have made it illegal to throw them in the trash.
Many local public works departments also have or are considering programs offering local collections of compact fluorescent bulbs, so check with your local government.
Sarah Schaeffer in her article in the Wall Street Journal noted that the amount of mercury in compact fluorescent bulbs is small, about five milligrams at most, and it is sealed inside the glass tubing, according to the EPA.
“Manufacturers have been working to lower that amount,” she noted.
As long as people clean up broken bulbs right away and don’t let kids touch them, people should be able to prevent contamination in their home, says Ellen Silbergeld, a professor of environmental health sciences at Johns Hopkins University. (The government suggests airing out the room for at least 15 minutes as a precaution. You can see the Environmental Protection Agency’s full instructions on dealing with a mercury “spill” from a broken bulb or thermometer at http://www.epa.gov/mercury/spills/index.htm.) Yet Silbergeld says she is more concerned about the environmental impact if millions of these bulbs end up in landfills or incinerators.
“I don’t think anybody has really grappled with this,” she says.
When it comes to computers, many major manufacturers — such as Apple and Dell — will take old computers back. If consumers want to know what else to do with their old electronics or fluorescent bulbs, several Web sites can help them find a drop-off place in their area, such as www.earth911.org and www.epa.gov/bulbrecycling. They can also check with the manufacturer, as well as their local utility and waste-management division.
Kyle suggests that, if possible, consumers recycle their items through the manufacturer because the manufacturer is likely to have responsible practices to protect its reputation. Consumers can also check a database called e-Stewards at www.ban.org. There, they can search for a local recycling firms that have taken a pledge not to export the waste to developing countries or allow it to end up in landfills or incinerators.