Electronics need to be recycled

(originally published November 2006, updated April 2009)

Go to any garbage dump and you’re likely to see computer monitors, printers, stereos, TVs etc. popping up everywhere.

Not only do these products take up landfill space, electronic circuit board components and casings contain all sorts of environmentally hazardous materials. Increasingly and sadly, items being dumped aren’t actually broken beyond repair, but the owners have fallen victim to perceived obsolescence or planned obsolescence.

Before purchasing electronic gizmos and gadgets, consider the following environmental hazards that go into their production and ask yourself – do you really need it? 

– Fumes from ammonia and acids
– CFCs, or chloroflouro carbons
– acid and alkaline solutions
– copper baths
– catalysts
– etchants
– aqueous metals
– plating baths
– metals, including nickel, silver, copper, lead

.. that’s not to mention the electricity consumed in their production, the way that electricity is generated, nor the oil used to make the plastics and transport the goods. Remember the 3R’s of green living – Reduce, Reuse, Recycle

The electronics industry also uses Tetrabromobisphenol-A (TBBPA). It’s a compound to help make circuit boards fire resistant. A harmful by-product of TBBPA is Methyl bromide – a pesticide, acute toxin and ozone depleting substance. Thankfully, some manufacturers are now beginning to use other substances; so it’s worthwhile checking the products you intend buying.

Dealing with electronic waste

While it’s difficult and often impractical to avoid having electronic equipment, once it has outlived its purpose, one strategy is to contact your local council for options for responsible disposal. Many councils can point you to a recycling program that will benefit others in your local community.

If the equipment is still serviceable, rather than dumping it, also consider recycling the items through international communities such as FreeMesa or FreeCycle. These are free services where members post offers for items they wish to give away or receive. Perhaps even ask your kids and neighbors if they know of anyone who may be interested in taking the equipment; or at your local school.

In the USA, the EPA offers some resources for recycling electronic waste.

Another service in the USA worth checking out is Recycle It America. Currently the service takes media players, laptops, cell phones, desktop computer sytems and flat panel monitors – although they will take CRT monitors as part of a full system. You enter your details and then you’ll receive a pre-paid shipping label – so there’s no cost to you in getting the equipment to them; in fact, in some cases you’ll even receive a small payment. The next products the service be adding  for recycling are cameras, GPS systems and game systems. One of the interesting commitments of Recycle It America is their promise to (properly) clear any personal information from the devices you send them.

If you’re in Australia, the Recycling Near You web site that lets you search by area or product to find a local recycling centre for electronic items.

The Electronics Recycling Association has a variety of locations locations to drop off old computers and electronics in Canada.

In the UK, WasteOnline offers information on contacts for recycling electronic equipment.

Yet another option is to inquire with the manufacturer if they have a recycling program – a word of warning though; some companies’ recycling programs simply mean that they dump the items in developing countries in massive landfills where impoverished people are then paid a pittance to strip out useful components – without adequate training or protection.