Sun, Mar

High-Tech Recycling: It's a Trashy Future

Are you getting ready to throw out an old computer, cell phone or printer cartridge? If you're interested, there are alternatives to relegating electronics to the trash heap, alternatives that could help schools, soldiers and victims of domestic violence, among others.

Are you getting ready to throw out an old computer, cell phone or printer cartridge?

If you're interested, there are alternatives to relegating electronics to the trash heap, alternatives that could help schools, soldiers and victims of domestic violence, among others.

A number of companies and organizations exist that will take pieces of unwanted technology -- sometimes for free, sometimes for a fee -- and give it new life in one form or another.

Electronics retailer Best Buy maintains drop-off centers at its stores where customers can leave old printer cartridges, cell phones and batteries for recycling.

Office-supply retail chain Staples has a "Recycle for Education" program, where the company donates $1 to schools for each inkjet or laser printer cartridge dropped off at one of its stores.

Staples also accepts cell phones and rechargeable batteries for recycling.

Goodwill Industries stores accept working computer equipment and televisions as well as cell phones.

Apple Computer recently started a recycling program for its iPod portable music players. Those who drop off their old iPods to Apple stores receive discounts on same-day purchases of new ones.

Some companies charge customers for recycling materials. For example, computer-maker Dell accepts computer equipment for recycling, but charges $15 per 50 pounds of material.

The fees cover the cost of the company picking up the equipment from the customer's house, taking it to the recycling center and recycling it, according to the company.

Many cell phone manufacturers and service providers reuse or recycle phones for free.

Customers typically can drop off their old phones and accessories at a service provider's store. Money raised from cell-phone recycling often goes to various charities.

For example, Verizon Wireless' HopeLine program benefits organizations and shelters for victims of domestic violence, said Verizon Wireless spokesman John Johnson.

Sometimes the company gives money to domestic-violence shelters and organizations such as the Virginia Sexual and Domestic Violence Action Alliance, Johnson said.

Other times, Verizon Wireless buys back phones from refurbishers and gives them to shelters with airtime included so shelter residents can use them.

That part of the program came about because a common aspect of domestic violence is an abuser cutting off a victim's lines of communication, Johnson said.

Cell phones with charged batteries can make emergency 911 calls even if they're not on a service plan, he said.

But sometimes police want to call back, or sometimes an emergency means calling someone besides the police, such as a court or a friend. That's why the phones include service minutes, Johnson said.

"By giving a woman an active wireless phone, they've at least got an emergency phone," he said. Since 2001, Verizon Wireless has collected more than two million old phones and donated more than $800,000 and 11,000 active phones to domestic violence groups, Johnson said.

Besides helping others, supporters of electronics recycling say keeping gadgets out of landfills helps keep the environment safer from toxic substances such as mercury and lead.

"There are so many wireless phones in circulation, and people are upgrading them so often that we need to keep them out of the waste stream," Johnson said.

David Owen, Lynchburg's director of waste management, says landfill officials prefer to refer people to companies who recycle electronic materials rather than let them dump it in the landfill.

The policy was developed a year or two ago.

"We try to reuse all the materials we can," Owen said.

Some items, such as batteries, the landfill accepts as "hazardous waste" because of the chemicals they contain.

Batteries found in laptop computers, cell phones and numerous other electronic items can contain mercury, nickel metal hydride and lead acid.

"All those heavy metals in electronics, whether they go to the landfills or incinerators, it's not a good thing," said Roger Diedrich, chairman of the Sierra Club's Virginia chapter. "Once it works its way into the food chain, it builds up … and gets back into living creatures."

Diedrich said he thinks technology producers should take more responsibility for ensuring the products they make are disposed of in an environmentally friendly manner.

He said he isn't sure what the best way of implementing "extended producer responsibility" would be, but suggested one solution could be an extra tax or fee built into the cost of a product that would pay for recovering and recycling the item.

Another possible solution: Consumers could receive a deposit for bringing computers and cell phones to recycling centers -- like recycling soda cans in some states, but on a much larger scale.

For now, electronics recycling generally requires initiative on the consumer's part. But it isn't limited just to the individual -- there are business-to-business recycling partnerships as well.

Clay Coleman, owner of Innovative Computer Solutions, has been refurbishing Centra Health's old computers for five years.

Forest-based Innovative Computer Solutions, also known simply as ICS, is primarily an accounting software firm serving the manufacturing, insurance and health care industries.

But in 2000, Coleman began taking computers that Centra Health no longer wanted, wiping them clean of private data and giving them to charities and schools.

He estimated that in the past five years, he's handled 600 to 700 of the health care system's old machines.

"You name it, we've probably donated some computers to it," he said. "We do it really as being a good corporate citizen and as a community service."

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Source: Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News