Consumer Watch: A Computer Is a Terrible Thing to Waste
I'm not proud of this, but here's what I recently discovered stashed in a corner of my basement, right next to the high school yearbooks and stacks of vinyl LPs: two old tower PCs, two CRT monitors, a nonfunctioning multifunction fax/copier/scanner, a cell phone the size of a Kleenex box, a single-disc CD player, an elderly but willing inkjet printer, and a PDA that long ago lost its will to hot-sync.
Naturally, I never intended to create a refugee camp for discarded digital devices. It just sort of evolved, primarily because I wasn't sure what to do with the old stuff. Nobody I knew wanted it, and the local charities I usually donate to generally don't take technology equipment.
I'm clearly not the only one harboring a gadget graveyard. In addition to the electronic clutter in garages across the land, plenty of businesses have storerooms stocked with ancient equipment.
Throwing the stuff out, though, can be worse than stockpiling it. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the average CRT monitor or TV contains about 4 pounds of lead, and most electronic devices contain mercury, cadmium, and other hazardous materials. Currently, according to the EPA, electronics account for about 1 percent of all solid waste, but most research suggests that the percentage is increasing every year.
The good news? Hardware makers and other companies are finally starting to help stem the flow of electronic waste. Many have established programs that make recycling easier for consumers and that offer incentives such as discounts on new purchases for customers who recycle.
Last summer, Office Depot worked with HP to offer free electronics recycling to the public for a limited time--all you had to do was drop off your device at a local store. Companies such as Dell, Gateway, and IBM provide recycling services, too.
HP, which historically has been proactive in electronics recycling, will recycle just about any PC, monitor, printer, scanner, fax machine, or handheld device--including equipment made by companies other than HP. You simply fill out an online form and pack the hardware up. At $13 to $34 per item, the service isn't the cheapest solution around, but the convenience is hard to beat: Just leave the box on your doorstep, and rest assured that your hardware will be reused or recycled for parts.
If you have your own collection of outgrown tech gear languishing in a hall closet, start the new year right and clean house. Chances are that you have something someone can use. Even if you don't, it's worth spending a few minutes--and maybe a few bucks--to dispose of those dormant devices responsibly.
First take inventory of what you have in storage. Separate the things that work from those that don't, and gather all the documentation and components you can find. Don't worry if the devices have minor problems; in some cases, facilities will do minor repairs or upgrades.
Obviously you shouldn't even think of handing over a computer--or anything else that might store private information about you--without wiping the entire hard drive clean. (And remember, simply deleting the sensitive data doesn't make it unrecoverable from the hard drive.)
Some refurbishers or recycling services might offer to wipe the hard drive for you, but unless the company is run by your mom, my advice is to do it yourself. Click here for some utilities that will eliminate all traces of you.
There is a downside to wiping the drive completely: Most charities and nonprofits don't have the resources to replace deleted operating systems and other software. If you have either a restore disc for the computer or your original copy of the OS, you can help by reinstalling the software or by including the disc with the PC.
Free to a Good Home
Once you've collected and cleaned your hardware has-beens, you can focus on getting rid of them. The easiest approach is to find a company that specializes in placing or recycling used equipment and let that group handle the details, even if it ends up costing you a few dollars.
A helpful place to start your search is the National Recycling Coalition, which offers an extensive database of recyclers and refurbishers, listed by state. Another useful site is TechSoup, which lists recyclers, refurbishers, charities, and other resources by region.
Check with your community's waste management department, as well. Many cities and towns schedule times when you can drop off electronics and other unwanted equipment; some even provide occasional curbside pickup service.
Got an old cell phone, PDA, or other small electronic device whose service is no longer required? ReCellular, a Michigan-based company, collects and refurbishes or recycles unwanted devices, donating most of the proceeds to charities. Return any retired cell phone to a local pickup spot (click here for a list of locations near you), and it'll be refurbished, reused, or recycled, according to marketing director Mike Newman.
And don't forget that disposing of some recent tech products could yield you a little cash. Auction giant EBay is doing its part to encourage consumers to sell their outgrown computers for reuse. The company's PC Selling Center service lets you obtain a detailed description of your computer (using an online tool provided by PC World) and a quote of its value, print prepaid shipping labels, order shipping materials, post a listing, and arrange for pickup, all with just a few clicks. David Stern, senior category manager of systems at EBay, says, "When we surveyed our customers, we found a tremendous demand for systems that are between one and three years old. So it made sense to help sellers reach out to that community."
As for my own collection of idle tech tools, I discovered a nearby recycling center and cleared out my electronic castoffs within a few hours. Some of the devices--like the CD player and the printer--even got a new lease on life, finding a home at a nonprofit after-school program.
It's a win-win solution: You get rid of stuff you don't need, help a good cause, and do the environment a favor. But remember, the longer your computer sits idle, the less useful it becomes. So Happy New Year--and happy recycling.