If a new TV, tablet or laptop are on your holiday wish list, you might be wondering what to do with that closet or drawer full of defunct electronics of Christmas and Hanukkah past.
It turns out that in Washington, there are loads of free and responsible disposal options available — options that don’t include dumping that monster box TV on a street corner with a “still works” sign stuck to it.
Thanks to a 2006 law, Washington requires electronics companies to pay the cost of recycling household e-waste including TVs, computers, monitors, laptops, e-readers and portable DVD players. That means people can drop off these items for disposal for free at locations across the state. Add to that the fact that a number of businesses will also take printers, keyboards and cell phones at no cost, and consumers have alternatives for purging lots of common electronics without sending them straight to the landfill.
But that isn’t to say that churning through electronic gadgets is an environmentally benign habit. The goods often contain rare and heavy metals, and are resource intensive to produce. Watchdog groups have documented ongoing problems with e-trash being shipped to developing countries ill-equipped to handle it in a safe manner, resulting in toxic pollution fouling impoverished communities.
One strategy for shrinking the waste stream is to take electronics that still have some life in them and fixing them up for reuse.
“It’s a way to keep more of this stuff out of the landfill and a way to get more [electronics] out to people who need it,” said Charles Brennick, president and founder of InterConnection. “It’s good for the consumer, and the people who need it.”
Interconnection, a 16-year-old Seattle nonprofit, collects electronics and refurbishes reusable items — mostly computers and laptops — for resale, with special discounts to low-income shoppers and other charitable groups. Most of the other electronics are recycled. While many other nonprofit groups including Goodwill, St. Vincent de Paul and Salvation Army also collect electronics for recycling and reuse, Brennick argues that his organization is a better option from a security standpoint because of their onsite ability to wipe sensitive information from computers and cell phones.
“For the consumer, there is no easily recognized place where you take your electronics and know it’s going to be recycled properly or reused,” he said. “Ideally, I would like to think it’s an opportunity for us.”
Last year, Washington residents scrapped 44 million pounds of consumer electronics — mostly TVs, but also monitors and computers. An additional 50,000 pounds of desktop computers, laptops, monitors and other parts were reused; none of the TVs were salvageable.
The state’s electronics recycling program, called E-Cycle Washington, aims to recover metals, plastics and other valuable resources contained in the electronics and divert the material from landfills. Peripherals such as keyboards and printers are not included in E-Cycle, but InterConnection and businesses including Best Buy and Staples will accept most of them at no cost.
Since E-Cycle launched in 2009, it has collected more than 292 million pounds of electronics, according to the state Department of Ecology, which oversees the program. Only 2 percent of the waste collected in the program goes to landfills.
“Washington has a reputation for perhaps being the best program in the country,” said Chipper Hervieux, a supervisor in Ecology’s Waste 2 Resources program.
But the electronics recycling industry still faces significant environmental challenges.
Founded nearly two decades ago, Seattle’s Basel Action Network (BAN) tracks toxic waste disposal worldwide. Years ago the nonprofit exposed the dumping of electronic junk in poor communities in China. Their documentary film showed children among mountains of computer trash in waterways and strewn across the land. It showed people trying to extract metals from the waste without any safety equipment to prevent them from inhaling and touching heavy metals and dangerous chemicals. BAN has lobbied for global rules prohibiting developed nations from shipping their toxic trash to poorer countries. The group created the e-Stewards certification program to help ensure that recyclers aren’t sending e-waste abroad where it poisons people and the environment.
In Washington, businesses and nonprofits collecting e-waste need to follow responsible recycling rules set by the state, and they can additionally seek approval from e-Stewards or R2 certification, which BAN says is less rigorous.
BAN is also fighting the international export to developing countries of used computers that don’t work well or are close to obsolete, putting them a step away from becoming e-trash.
“Reuse is not always better than responsible recycling,” said Sarah Westervelt, e-Stewardship policy director for BAN.
Brennick said that all of the computers he exports are tested and functional, and that more of his sales are domestic as the foreign markets are increasingly focused on buying new machines. InterConnection is R2 certified, and for electronics that they can’t reuse, the nonprofit sends most of them to Total Reclaim, the state’s largest electronics recycler, which is e-Stewards certified.
To facilitate domestic sales of refurbished electronics, InterConnection partners with a group called TechSoup to sell computers to other nonprofits. InterConnection also has online sales, a retail space in Seattle and an electronics shop inside the St. Vincent de Paul thrift store in Kenmore. The computers come with guarantees and valid Microsoft Windows licensing.
In addition to InterConnection’s 30 drop-off sites around the Puget Sound, people who want to donate cell phones or laptops can download mailing labels from their website and send them in for free. The organization also has partnerships with larger companies and nonprofits including Microsoft, Nintendo and the Seattle Art Museum to collect their unwanted equipment and refurbish it for reuse.
Donors can be confident that InterConnection will wipe the data stored on computers and cell phones or destroy the hard drive if the computer is too old, said Brennick. If someone is worried about data security, staff will even pull the hard drive from their machine and smash it in front of them.
Electronics recycling is far from perfect, BAN’s Westervelt said, but Washington is doing better than many other states.
“Holding on to [unwanted electronics] is not a good plan anymore,” Westervelt said, “because if it does have reuse value, the sooner it gets into the reuse market, the better.”
Wondering what to do with your electronic trash?
- Ecology’s 1-800 RECYCLE database lets you search for e-waste collectors by location.
- Ecology also has tips if you’d like your electronics to be reused instead of recycled.
- Basel Action Network has information about finding certifiably responsible collectors.
- Seattle Public Utilities tells you how to dispose of different items.