Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Responsible Recycling: My E-Waste Odyssey

Circuit boards removed from old computers and televisions at Total Reclaim, a recycler in Seattle. 
 
Stuart Isett for The New York Times Circuit boards removed from old computers and televisions at Total Reclaim, a recycler in Seattle.
Green: Living
Most Americans know that e-waste is supposed to be recycled. Items like cellphones, batteries, televisions, digital clocks, video game systems and broken computers shouldn’t be tossed in the trash because they contain dangerous chemicals and heavy metals that could end up in landfills that way, experts warn.

Computer boxes exhort you to “Please Recycle.” Battery containers carry pictures of little trash bins with an emphatic red “X” drawn across them. But admonishing consumers to recycle their e-waste in cute little cartoons is far easier than properly disposing of it as a consumer. Unlike the universal recycling bin that is usually close at hand for disposing of a soda can, systems for e-waste recycling vary greatly from place to place. Rules also vary depending on the kind of gadget involved.

Laws now govern e-waste recycling. In New York City, it is illegal to throw rechargeable batteries into the trash; in New York State, wireless providers must take up to 10 cellphones from a customer or provide free shipping to a recycler. More laws are in the pipeline. But these regulations are even harder to enforce than pooper-scooper laws, and for now are routinely broken.

I make a living writing about the environment and have reported on the dangerous traffic in electronic waste, which can end up poisoning children in Africa and Asia who eke out a living picking apart our children’s old computers. Which is why over the last few years my family gradually accumulated a veritable graveyard of broken and outdated electronic equipment in our small apartment that I could not throw away or quickly figure out how to recycle: laptops, old cellphones, Game Boys, Xbox equipment, batteries and used printer cartridges.


Well this fall, the jig was up: we were moving to a different Manhattan apartment, and I resolved to figure out how to get rid of the junk. The process took considerable investigation — the answer was not always easy or obvious. After all, stores want to sell you new things, not take back your old stuff. Here are some tips gathered on my e-waste recycling odyssey. Please share yours!

• Printer cartridges. Some office supply stores will accept these, most notably Staples, where my spent cartridge collection ended up. You can even get a small store credit for each cartridge turned in as an incentive. (Note to those with dozens of cartridges: you only get credit for 10 cartridges per visit.)

• Cellphones, chargers and batteries. Many electronics stores collect these, although few advertise the service (as in, “Drop Off Your Broken Phones Here!”). Some will take old equipment as partial payment for new purchases. Others have a box somewhere in the store where old equipment can be deposited. My items ended up in a small unmarked brown box at a Radio Shack in the Morningside Heights area. They barely fit into the box, and certainly no one thanked me. But at least it wasn’t in my apartment.

• Computers. This turned out to be the hard one. Some environmental groups and computer stores organize e-waste recycling collection drives. In New York City, the Lower East Side Ecology Center and Tekserve, a computer store on 23rd Street, organize four collection days a year, but I don’t have a car and it was hard for me to get three old computers to the location at the prescribed time. (The store will also accept your old computer for recycling when you purchase a new one.)

Because the three old computers in my home were Macs, I stopped by the local Apple store. I discovered that old iPods can be turned in, and the customer gets 10 percent off the purchase of a new one. But it’s more complicated to offload computers, which the stores will not accept directly. Instead you must go to the Apple site, where you provide information about the type of equipment you want to turn in.

PowerOn, the California company that takes back the material, will send you a box with packaging material. You pack up the computer and peripherals and take it to the nearest FedEx store. Shipping is free. In theory, you even get some profit for your trouble since PowerOn promises to send you an Apple gift card (I was promised $70 to $80 for each laptop) as compensation for the merchandise sent.

So for a brief blessed interlude, my home is free of e-waste.

Or was. This week my son’s laptop died and could not be fixed. It’s a Sony. At its Web site, Sony proudly describes its national “e-recycling” dropoff points. But there are none near my ZIP code. Here we go again …
How is e-waste recycled where you live?

 http://green.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/10/24/responsible-recycling-my-e-waste-odyssey/
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