How can I recycle my outdated computer equipment?

How can I recycle my outdated computer equipment?

—Kenneth Rapp, Toms River, NJ

Computers are infamous for their rapid obsolescence. These days you can expect a new computer to serve you for three to five years at best before “must have” features become available only in newer models. Many companies have “computer graveyards”—rooms filled to the ceiling with outdated computers, printers, monitors, cables and other accessories that are no longer in operation and seemingly have nowhere to go but the junk heap.

It”s no surprise then that more than 10 million computers end up in American landfills every year. But old computer equipment languishing in landfills poses myriad environmental hazards, as many contain toxic compounds that can seep into surrounding land and groundwater. According to USA Today, the average PC contains “five pounds of lead (to protect the user from radiation) in the cathode ray tube monitor alone. Circuit boards typically contain cadmium, mercury and chromium while the whole package is housed in brominated, flame-retardant plastic.” The National Safety Council reports that by the end of 2005, 350 million computers will have reached obsolescence, with at least 55 million of them expected to end up in landfills unless recycling increases.

According to Nikki and David Goldbeck’s book, Choose to Reuse: An Encyclopedia of Services, Businesses, Tools & Charitable Programs That Foster Reuse, many computers can be saved and don’t need to end up in landfills. The first thing to check is if your old computer can be upgraded; often the substitution of a simple memory chip can make a slowpoke speed up considerably. And RAM memory—provided there are sufficient expansion slots—is getting cheaper all the time.

If an upgrade won’t work, there are alternatives to landfills. Goodwill and The Salvation Army will take working older equipment and re-sell it. “Free Computer” ads can be posted at schools and workplaces. And brokers like American Computer Exchange will take your hardware for trade on a newer model.

Meanwhile, many worthy non-profit groups will make good use of computer equipment outdated for your needs. The National Cristina Foundation places used technology with non-profit organizations and public agencies that serve the disabled and economically disadvantaged. For a more do-it-yourself approach, The Global Crisis Solution Center provides a free online resource hooking up equipment donors with needy non-profits.

Europe is leading the way in keeping computers out of landfills, with all computer manufacturers required to have recycling programs in place. In the U.S., several makers will now recycle or exchange computers, often for a marginal fee. IBM, Dell Computer and Hewlett-Packard have all started such programs.

CONTACTS: National Cristina Foundation, www.cristina.org

Global Crisis Solution Center, www.globalcrisis.info/computerrecycle.html; IBM Product Recycling Program, www.ibm.com/ibm/environment/products/prp.shtml.