Monday, October 15, 2007

Blog Action Day: Recycling Your Old Electronics

This post is part of Blog Action Day, a movement where over 20,000 blogs committed to post about the environment on October 15, 2007.

Why Recycle?
Despite their simple, sleek exteriors, modern electronics actually contain several dozen different substances. Many of these materials are toxic or carcinogenic, including significant amounts of:
Most electronics are thrown out and enter the solid waste system when they are no longer useful. A 40 pound computer monitor can contain over 2 pounds of lead! It's so bad that electronics account for 70% of all toxic waste in the United States.

Recycling prevents these toxins from affecting the environment, and also allows manufacturers to reuse materials. Lead, tin, copper, aluminum, iron, zinc, gold, mercury, silicon, nickel, cadmium, and lithium can all be extracted from recycled electronics, purified, and reused.

Governments are starting to increase recycling by doing what they do best: legislation. In Maine, all televisions and computer monitors must now be recycled. California has started assessing an Electronic Waste Recycling Fee on devices with screens and monitors. In September 2006, the European Union declared that rechargeable batteries become hazardous waste when discarded. More regulations and incentives are sure to follow.

How Recycling is Done
First, huge stockpiles of electronic waste are gathered together.

The parts are ground and reground until all that's left are tons of e-dust.

This guy melts it all down. What a pal!

And with the magic of extractive metallurgy, the various metals are isolated and turned into ingots! This one is amateur.

The metals are then sold for profit. I can't source it, but I heard that a computer motherboard has about $1.25 of recyclable metals in it, and it takes about 80 cents to extract them.

How to Recycle
Today's consumers are more scrutinizing than they ever have been, and companies know this. In recent years, most of the major computer manufacturers have adopted recycling practices that make it easy, and often free, for consumers to get rid of old equipment cleanly. Look for the icon in this post for solutions that won't cost you a cent.

Computers and Computer Equipment
  • Dell – Of all the major computer manufacturers, Dell's recycling program is the most comprehensive. They will accept any Dell-branded equipment for free, at any time, and pay shipping. After filling out a form online, a prepaid DHL waybill can be printed out, and DHL will come straight to your doorstep to pick up the boxes. It's that easy! Dell also allows you to recycle non-Dell equipment for free when you purchase a Dell computer. The shipping waybills are automatically included in the packing for the new computer, and you can just reuse that same box.
  • HP/Compaq – HP's recycling program is straightforward, but not free. They charge between $13-$34 per item, and you can order the waybills online. I quoted a standard PC, monitor, and inket printer in 3 separate boxes at $59.
  • Sony – Sony will allow you to return an old Sony notebook computer to them in exchange for store credit, but the age of the laptop affects the amount of the refund. The company has also partnered with Waste Management to accept Sony electronics at any of its dropoff locations (PDF) at no charge. This sounds like it would also include Sony televisions. It was disappointing that I couldn't find any recycling information directly from Sony's online store.
  • Toshiba – Although it is advertised as a recycling program, Toshiba's solution is just a glorified trade-in program through the logistics contractor DealTree. If you have decent, working equipment to trade in, you can get a refund on the purchase of a new Toshiba computer, but the website is so clunky I'm surprised they even bother. Older equipment with "no trade-in value" is accepted for the price of shipping.
  • Gateway – Like Toshiba, Gateway contracts with DealTree to trade in old Gateway-branded equipment. Same difficult interface, and you must provide a proof of purchase for each item you trade in.
  • Lenovo/IBM – For $30, Lenovo will give you a single shipping label. By the description, they somehow expect you to fit a PC, monitor, keyboard, and printer into a single 26" cube box. Good luck.
  • Apple – Apple will pay shipping to trade in of any brand old computer and/or monitor with the purchase of new Apple one. You print a confirmation email and take the boxed equipment to an authorized FedEx shipping location. The company also offers 10% off any new iPod when you recycle your old one. Finally, all Apple stores will recycle iPods and all brands of cell phones at no cost.
Printer Ink and Toner
Printer waste was the first type of equipment that many manufacturers recycled, and today almost all inkjet and toner cartridges can be recycled. Most of the time, the packaging for new cartridges comes with either an prepaid envelope or prepaid shipping label. For small inkjet cartridges, you simply put the old cartridge in the envelope, seal it, and throw it in the mailbox. For laser toners, peel the label and slap it on the outside of the toner box. You'll also have to find a pickup location for the courier.
  • HP – Most inkjet cartridges come with a prepaid USPS envelope in the box, and most laser toners, fuser kits, and transfer kits come with prepaid UPS labels. You can also order prepaid collection boxes that hold many cartridges from their website.
  • Epson – There is a recycling program for general equipment like printers and scanners, but it costs $10 per item. There doesn't appear to be any support for recycling printer cartridges. At least one third party has attempted to recycle Epson ink cartridges without success.
  • Canon – Canon has recycled 110,000 tons of copier toner cartridges since 1990, but they don't accept regular inkjet or laser toner cartridges. A Canon account is also required.
  • Dell – All Dell-labeled equipment is free to recycle, and printer supplies are no different. Inkjet cartridges come with prepaid envelopes, and prepaid waybills for laser toner can be printed from Dell's website.
  • Lexmark – Like HP, both inkjet and laser toner cartridges come with prepaid envelopes or labels, and you can request free additional envelopes and labels online. You can also ship them old Lexmark printers with no additional fee; you provide the shipping in that case.
Cell Phones and Rechargeable Batteries
This one is easy. The Rechargeable Battery Recycling Corporation (RBRC) is a non-profit organization that runs a program called Call2Recycle™, which collects old cell phones and rechargeable batteries at no cost to the consumer. Simply drop any cell phone, Ni-Cd, Ni-MH, Li-ion, or small sealed lead battery in a drop box. The RBRC has managed to place 30,000 free drop boxes nationwide by partnering with major chains, including:
  • Best Buy
  • Circuit City
  • The Home Depot
  • Lowe's
  • Office Depot
  • OfficeMax
  • RadioShack
  • Sears
  • Staples
  • Target
Enter your zip code in their drop off site locator to find a participating location near you.

Other Options
If you have old equipment from a manufacturer with a poor recycling policy, all hope is not lost! Staples has a program called Staples Soul, which accepts any brand of computer equipment at all Staples stores for a small fee. Each large piece of equipment (computer, monitor, laptop, printer, fax machine, etc.) costs $10 to drop off. Accessories like keyboards, mice, and speakers are free. At this price, a standard computer with monitor and printer would cost $30 total to recycle, with no shipping hassle.

State of the Industry
Overall, it's a mixed bag. Some companies really get it, and offer free and easy recycling, while others have merely paid lip service to the environment. Dell's policy is head and shoulders over the competition, with free recycling of all Dell-branded equipment, free recycling of any equipment with the purchase of a Dell computer, and online shipping label printing. Apple's policy comes close, too. In the printer space, Dell, HP, and Lexmark have great practices. The RBRC has cell phones and batteries covered. And Staples' cheap and simple service covers all the rest.

Toshiba, Sony, Lenovo, Canon, and Epson should take a lesson from these examples and clean up their acts. It should be free whenever possible, and it has to be easy. Anything less is just patronizing the consumer, and promoting a useless policy with hollow words.

Large corporations don't do anything unless there is money in it. Dell and Apple have realized that spending a little more on their recycling program is offset by the boost it gives their corporate image, resulting in more sales. Corporations, especially public ones, can't really be blamed for this, so an extra push is needed to encourage more complete recycling programs from them. This is where the government comes in.

I predict that over the next few years, we will see:
  1. More legislation mandating electronics recycling.
  2. Tax incentives and/or penalties to promote better recycling programs by companies.
We'll see what happens. For now, vote with your dollars.

No comments: