Responsible Recycling for Tech Gadgets

Gadget geeks crave the latest in digital technology — but what happens to the old, outdated gadgets after the upgrade? Many electronic devices contain heavy metals and other toxic chemicals that could lead to contamination. Technology guru Mario Armstrong has tips on responsible recycling.

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ED GORDON, host:

I'm Ed Gordon, and this is NEWS AND NOTES.

The pace of technology is moving so quickly, it seems as soon as you buy a gadget it's outmoded. And with the price of electronics falling, it's easy to find yourself with a pile of tech toys gathering dust in your house.

NPR's Farai Chideya knows this dilemma well. She recently talked with NEWS AND NOTES tech guru Mario Armstrong about how to clean up the high-tech junk pile.

FARAI CHIDEYA reporting:

You know, I still have this laptop sitting around in my house that is probably about seven years old…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MARIO ARMSTRONG (NEWS AND NOTES Tech Guru): And you don't know what to do.

CHIDEYA: …and I didn't want to just throw it in the trash. What am I going to do with this thing?

Mr. ARMSTRONG: Yeah, that's good because, really, your dilemma is what a lot of people go through, especially when you come out of the spring and summertime, people start looking at things that they can get rid off. And electronics, more and more households have more of these things. So you're laptop scenario is a very common scenario. And right now, the Environmental Protection Agency estimates that about 1 to 4 percent of all solid waste from this country comes from these electronic devices.

So one of the things that you should be thinking about is, as you have old devices is, look at computer recycling programs from manufacturers, especially if you're buying a new computer. They'll even come and pick up your old one and take that away for you for free. Other options could be, maybe check your local PC dealers in the area. And there's a Web site that really has a campaign all about computer take-backs. And it's called Computertakeback.com. And they have a list of registered recycling places that may be in your neighborhood that you could also drop these products off to.

CHIDEYA: And so what is the downside of just chucking it? Tell us, specifically, what happens if you just happen to throw out your old cell phone or your computer with the household trash.

Mr. ARMSTRONG: You know, this stuff isn't good for the body. I mean, a circuit board in a computer has all sorts of harmful chemicals that you wouldn't want to ingest, or be around, for that matter. I mean, lead, there's mercury, there's cadmium. These old monitors, they're called CRTs or cathode ray tubes, all of these things - even down to cell phones, MP3 players, DVDs - all of them have, in some way shape or form, some harmful chemical.

And just by throwing them in the trash, they'll end up in a landfill. This could, you know, end up in our water. And it really has some harmful repercussions, as we adopt more and more technologies, if we're disposing of these technologies in this way.

CHIDEYA: So, on the one hand, you have the fact that you could harm the environment and your own family, and your neighborhood by disposing of these items improperly. Then, you have the computer take-back program. What about cell phones? Are there any programs that might be good if you're getting a new model cell phone?

Mr. ARMSTRONG: The cell phone companies do a lot of things. They do recycle their cell phones and refurbish them, in some cases. And for those phones that are outdated or old, they donate those phones to charitable organizations. And several of these companies even give them to organizations that help women that are dealing with abuse, and abusive situations or relationships, and they need an emergency cell phone.

Because a lot of folks don't know, that even with a cell phone that does not have an ongoing contract with a telecommunications company, it can still make a 911 call. So folks, please don't throw away your cell phones. Please give them to these cell phone companies because they'll make sure they get to a good charity organization.

CHIDEYA: Speaking of charitable organizations, there must be a lot of them that would be happy to get an old, but working, computer.

Mr. ARMSTRONG: Tons. I mean, Goodwill is a major adopter of this type of technology and they really have a program that's set up well to refurbish these computers. So yes, there are many nonprofits.

So what you may think is really trash and, typically, something that's still even seven years, maybe in a laptop, there are usable parts from that. In a computer, there are usable parts from that. The keyboard probably still works fine. The hard drive probably still works fine, although we need to talk about being secure about your data, if you're going to give away computers. And your monitor probably still works fine, and memory inside of the computer.

So there are salvageable parts that low-income communities would love to get their hands on and nonprofits would love to get their hands on.

CHIDEYA: Why don't we end on a up note. What is happening in terms of more efficient computers, in terms of using electricity; more efficient batteries? Has there been an upswing in performance?

Mr. ARMSTRONG: Yeah and you can see this, right? It's going on right now as it relates to fuel and our dependency on that in our economy. And so we're looking at a lot of different technologies that are really innovative, that are really pushing naturally more environmentally-safe processes. And, in fact, some computer companies now are actually looking at how they can use better ingredients, if you will, to make their computers. Because not only does it make it less costly for them, but on the environmental side, it's good for them. So it's also good for them on the PR side as well.

CHIDEYA: One more thing before I let you go: any Web sites or any comparison charts about these efficiencies in fuel use, in energy use? Any place that people can go if they're getting ready to buy a new computer or cell phone?

Mr. ARMSTRONG: Yeah, that's a great question and there are several resources on the Internet. Some of them - the three that I'll give you - actually four - one is Computertakeback.com, talks a lot about how to deal with electronic waste and corporate accountability, but it also gives you steps on responsible recycling. So it's a very good spot.

In fact, I was surprised there - I'm sorry to go off on a tangent here - but I was surprised to find out that a new report there revealed that up to 75 percent of the computers and electronics shipped to Africa, supposedly for reuse, is actually junk and unrepairable and unsalvageable. So, I was very interested into finding out more about that particular article.

But the Epa.gov has a lot of links and information. And Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition, and for short, that is SVTC.org. And then the last one is CNET.com, C-N-E-T.com.

CHIDEYA: All right, Mario Armstrong, thank you so much.

Mr. ARMSTRONG: Happy recycling.

CHIDEYA: Mario Armstrong is NEWS AND NOTES tech contributor. He also does shows for Baltimore area member stations, WEAA and WYPR.

GORDON: That was NPR's Farai Chideya.

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