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How to recycle your old electronics

Today is Earth Day, the one day of the year when organizations from around the world try and focus everyone's attention on issues such as climate change, reusable energy and a cleaner planet.

While issues like global warming might seem far beyond the influence of any one individual, there are certain actions that all of us can take to try and make a difference. One of those actions is to recycle.

When we think of recycling, most of us think of separating cans, bottles and plastics and leaving them next to the garbage for the weekly pick-up. But there is another type of "household waste" that is growing exponentially and becoming a significant threat to the environment. We are talking about consumer electronics.

Once regarded as luxury goods, we now buy TVs, computers, laptops and other consumer electronics in record numbers, often regarding them as throw-aways once a bigger/faster/slimmer model comes along and we upgrade once again.

What happens to the original? If it's small enough, like a cell phone, it goes into that kitchen drawer with all the cables, chargers and headphones. If it's a TV or a computer, it gets moved to the garage or attic to gather dust and await an uncertain fate.

Imagine what's happening in your house and now multiple that by tens of millions. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that between 300 and 400 million electronic items are discarded each year, with less than 20% of that waste being recycled. Over 70% of all electronics purchased just two years ago sit stockpiled in garages, basements and other areas of the home. Two-thirds of the discarded items are still working!

The more we stockpile, the bigger the danger of eventual dumping due to a hastily arranged clean-up or an eventual house sale. If not properly disposed of, this e-waste ends up in landfills either here or abroad, leaking toxins and other harmful material into local water supplies or polluting the air.

However, it doesn't have to be this way. In recent years, local and federal agencies have set up recycling advisories, suggesting ways in which we can recycle or safely dispose of our old electronics. Not-for-profits and even the electronics manufacturers have joined in, recognizing that the current methods of disposal and stockpiling are not economically or environmentally sustainable.

Here are some suggestions on how you can safely – and cheaply – make a difference:

Use local drop-offs and pick-ups

Many local communities now have taxpayer-funded electronic recycling programs. Town web sites will usually have instructions on where and when consumer electronics can be dropped off or when the local sanitation department will come and pick-up. The Consumer Electronics Association web site Greener Gadgets has great information on how to recycle, and a search-by-zip tool to help you locate your nearest resource. There is even information on financial incentives for doing the right thing!

Cell phones

Cell phones probably represent the largest category of stockpiled electronics but are also the easiest to recycle. All the main service providers and electronics retailers have programs where you can drop off cell phones, chargers, cables and accessories for no fee. Most stores will accept any kind of cell phone from any service provider.

If you think your cell phone has value, then you can take advantage of Verizon Wireless’ Trade-In Program. You can get a quick online appraisal, decide whether you want to accept the offer, and even get a free prepaid envelope to help with shipping.

You can also donate your old phone. One of the best charity initiatives is Verizon's HopeLine program, which provides refurbished phones - complete with free minutes - to victims of domestic violence.

Computers, laptops, TVs and more

If you can't arrange disposal or recycling through your local town, most electronics retailers will provide you with an alternative. Best Buy stores will take just about anything electronic, regardless of where you bought it, what brand it is, or how old it is. That includes TVs, DVD players, computer monitors, audio and video cables, cell phones, and more. Their recycling web site provides a complete list of what can and can't be dropped off in-store.

Staples will accept computer equipment, monitors, printers and scanners for recycling at no cost, and it will even pay a small amount for recycled ink-jet cartridges. Costco has a trade-in program through its recycling partner Gazelle.

The computer manufacturers have also become enthusiastic recyclers, with Samsung, Dell and Sony all promoting programs, either on their own or with professional recycling partners. Many of them will take unwanted equipment whatever the brand, although it will clearly help your case if you are looking to buy a replacement!

If none of these options fit the bill, or if there isn't a store in your area, then you can visit Earth911 or web sites like E-cycling to find alternative services nearby.

Be charitable

If your TV, computer or cell phone is in good shape, then you might want to think about a charitable donation. If you can't find a local charity, then the National Cristina Foundation accepts computers, peripherals and software for schools and for people with disabilities. Cells for Cells will take in unwanted cell phones, raising money to fight cancer.

So the next time you are thinking about an upgrade for that laptop, don't just cram more waste into the nation's landfills – or into that overflowing garage. There are plenty of ways to recycle your old electronics, help the planet, and feel so much better about your next purchase!

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