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Toxic Computer Waste: Disposing of Outdated or Hazardous Computer Hardware

written by: Nancy Jackson•edited by: Linda Richter•updated: 10/6/2009

Electronic waste is a toxic problem for American landfills and third world populations. Read on for info on how to dispose of computers and computer hardware.

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    The Problem of Computer Waste: What to do with Outdated Computer Hardware?

    Most of us probably don't think of our old PC's as part of a wave of toxic waste that threatens to engulf us. However, since we consider our computers obsolete after about three years, we need to give more thought to what happens to our outdated computer hardware after we're done with it. Chances are good that it will join the almost 85% of electronic waste that ends up either in the country's landfills or sent by recyclers to third world dumps.

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    What Makes Computer Parts Hazardous Material?

    You might wonder why outdated computer hardware is considered toxic waste. The answer is that the computer waste crowding our landfills contains lead (four to eight pounds in each CRT monitor), mercury, cadmium, beryllium, and traces of many other hazardous chemicals. Dioxin, the king of the toxic waste dump, permeates the plastic that holds our computers together. The small percentage of computer waste that is entrusted to recyclers is often exported to third world countries, where workers have fewer protections than ours do. Export of such hazardous materials as old electronics is subject to little federal oversight. As a result, most Americans are becoming concerned about the disposal of outdated computer hardware. Let's face it -- the vision of landfills overflowing with chemicals that are leaching into our soil should disturb all of us.

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    State Requirements for Disposal

    The problem of what to do with outdated computer hardware is being addressed by the states on an individual basis. Sixteen states have passed laws that place the responsibility for free and proper disposal of computer waste squarely on the manufacturers of the electronic products. Ten more states are actively working on such legislation. Yet another state, California, has established a statewide recycling program funded by consumers, not by the electronics companies. The programs mandating free recycling by the manufacturers have been deemed Computer TakeBack initiatives -- they must be offered in the states where the computer manufacturers sell their products. 

    Consumers need to determine before purchase whether they are buying a computer that offers a free pick-up and recycling service. Many companies and individuals utilize the services of responsible recyclers such Goodwill Industries and The National Cristina Foundation. These nonprofits refurbish computers for use by disadvantaged and disabled individuals. An environmental advocacy group, the Basel Foundation of Seattle, WA, has developed strict criteria for parting out and recycling computer waste. Recyclers who meet their criteria, forbidding use of landfills or shipping to developing countries, make up an exclusive list that is growing longer.

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    Refurbished Computers

    Recyclers say that the export of refurbished computers for profit is a rapidly growing business. The plastic, glass, and other materials stripped from computer waste can be sold to other industries. There are even a number of websites that will pay you money for your outdated computers and gadgets. However, these measures fail to address the continuing problem of maintaining toxic computer waste as shelf filler for many companies and individuals, either because they aren't sure what to do with it or because these components contain personal information. 

    In the end, the most reasonable and environmentally-friendly decision is to make a list of the components, call a reputable recycler, and plan a pick-up or delivery. Waiting just devalues the computers and increases the chances that a landfill may be their final destination.