The Tricky Challenge of Electronic Trash

March 1, 2008

If you’re like many sales associates, you spend a fair amount trying out new technologies in an effort to stay competitive. According to the 2007 NATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF REALTORS® Member Profile, REALTORS® spent a median of $820 on technology in 2006. But as you’re upgrading your tech tools, it’s doubtful you give much thought to what happens to your cast-off gadgets.

Chucking them in the trash shouldn’t be your first choice. Computers and many other business tech gadgets such as PDAs are considered hazardous waste by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. They contain lead, mercury, PCBs, and other toxic materials that can pollute soil and groundwater.

Although there aren’t federal regulations governing electronics disposal, several states, including California, Maine, and Massachusetts, don’t permit any electronics, including computers, to be placed in landfills, according to Anne Reichman, director of Earth 911, a national repository of information on environmental issues. Many more states and municipalities are likely to pass similar laws in the future, she says.

So before you buy your next tech tool, think about these disposal options for retiring your old electronic equipment.

  • Give it to your assistant, your child’s school, or a charity. Nationally, organizations such as the National Cristina Foundation and Share the Technology accept older equipment to help the disadvantaged. One challenge for donors, especially in this age of inexpensive computers, is that many organizations will not take computers more than a couple of years old, warns Kory Bostwick, president and CEO of PC Disposal, a company that collects PCs and many other kinds of office equipment. Also be careful that the group receiving your donation has a disposal plan in place.
  • Use it as a server to run your home or team network. A network allows you to easily share files or a printer. You could also use the old computer to store older client files.
  • Sell it on eBay or to a local computer reseller. Many computer manufacturers, such as Hewlett Packard, also offer cash or credits when you turn in your old equipment.
  • Recycle it. Municipalities, environmental groups, and some computer manufacturers provide recycling services. For example, Apple offers recycling programs for equipment including computers, printers, and iPods.

Not sure where to take that tired PC? Visit Earth 911, where you can search for recycling centers by state, city, and ZIP code or locate national recycling providers. If you can’t find a source in your area, call your municipality for help. In many cases, you’ll pay a small fee for disposal.

Another issue to keep in mind is where the recycler sends equipment to be dismantled and reused, says Reichman. Because of lower labor costs, much electronic equipment is sent to countries like China, which may not exercise pollution controls on disposal. You’ll pay more to have your equipment disassembled stateside, but your chances of adding to pollution will be lessened, says Reichman.

Hire someone to recycle it. You can also hire a third-party company to dispose of your equipment. These organizations dismantle equipment and then reuse the component parts—metals, plastics, and so on. The advantage of using a specialized vendor is that they assume any liability for the disposal and will also wipe your hard drives clean. Although some disposal companies are only viable if you’re retiring many computers at one time, will dispose of a CPU for $9, plus whatever it costs to ship it. Sources for finding vendors include the National Center for Electronic Recycling, the International Association of Electronics Recyclers, and the EPA.

If you want more information on the why and hows of electronic recycling, download the free EPA publication WasteWise Update: Electronics Reuse and Recycling from the the agency’s Web site.

Whatever disposal options you choose, remember to save all files and programs you want to keep; then wipe the disk clean using a special software program. Programs such as QuickWiper for a $29.95 license fee for one computer) or Total Wipe Pro for $19.95 will eliminate all e-mails and files completely. Companies such as PC Disposal also provide a data cleansing of your old equipment as part of the disposal process.

This extra step is critical to prevent identity theft — yours or your clients’.

Responsibly recycling or reusing your past-its-prime electronic equipment conserves natural resources, reduces pollution, and keeps you on the right side of the law. It’s a win-win.