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Responsible e-Waste Disposal

Did you get that sharp new smartphone - the one that streams music, shoots video and surfs the web? How about the new hand-held tablet with a battery that never dies? Congratulations, you've got the latest electronics.

So, what did you do with the old phone and computer? If you threw them in the garbage or put them on the curbside with a FREE sign, you probably need to get current on the latest in electronics disposal.


The statistics on electronic waste (e-waste) are alarming. E-waste is now the fastest-growing part of the municipal waste stream, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

In the United States alone, there are over 90 percent of American adults own a cell phone, according to the Pew Research Center. Think of how many of those people are on their second and even third cell phones. When you also consider that 80 percent of the world's population live in an area with cell phone reception, recycling old phones just makes sense.

Each year, we dispose of roughly 250 million computers. In 2003, the National Safety Council predicted that between 315 million and 680 million computers will become obsolete within the next few years. In California alone, 6,000 computers become obsolete each day. Out of the high volume of discarded and obsolete computers, only 10 percent are actually recycled. The vast majority of electronics are simply thrown away.


Computers seem so efficient and environmentally-friendly, but there are hidden dangers associated with them once they become e-waste. The harmful materials contained in electronics, coupled with the fast rate at which we're replacing outdated units, poses a real danger to human health if electronics are not properly processed prior to disposal or recycled.

Electronics like computers and cell phones contain a lot of different toxins. For example, cathode ray tubes (CRTs) in computers contain heavy metals, such as lead, barium and cadmium, which can be very harmful to health if they enter the water system. These materials can cause damage to human nervous and respiratory systems. Flame retardant plastics, used in electronics casings, can release particles that damage human endocrine functions. These are the types of things that can happen when unprocessed e-waste is put directly in landfill.


Countries, such as Japan and the member nations of the European Union, have laws that regulate e-waste disposal. Internationally, the Basel Convention Treaty restricts the export of hazardous waste from developed countries to developing countries.

In the U.S., there are no federal regulations or legislation that specifically addresses e-waste disposal. There are, however, state laws dealing with the issue. Currently, numerous states have passed regulations governing the disposal and/or recycle of electronic waste.

Notably, California enacted AB2901, the Cell Phone Recycling Act of 2004, which took effect on July 1, 2006. This law states that retailers who sell mobile phones in California must offer a no-cost way for consumers to properly dispose of their old phones. Specifically, these requirements include "a system for the acceptance and collection of used cell phones for reuse, recycling, or proper disposal." The law applies regardless of the sales channel used to purchase the phone, be it an in-store, catalog, or online transaction.

Cumulatively, these laws are making some impact on the responsible manufacture and disposal of e-waste. As awareness of this issue continues to spread, progress will hopefully follow suit.

e-Responsibility (everyone's responsibility)

Individual consumers are obviously not solely responsible for e-waste issues. Institutions also bear a significant ownership of these problems. Think of how many computers and mobile phones are in your workplace. Clearly, businesses make a substantial contribution to the consumption and disposal of electronics. Thus, supervisors in change of IT purchasing should ensure the responsible recycling and/or disposal of company computers and cell phones.

Manufacturers are also involved in the situation, as they determine what materials go into the electronics. In many instances, objectionable materials are used in response to consumer demand for cheaper computers and phones. So, there's a cycle at work that implicates virtually everyone. It really boils down to this: parties who make, use, sell or purchase electronics have a responsibility to participate in some form of e-waste management program.

How to Participate

There are a variety of programs associated with electronics recycling and e-waste disposal:

Mobile Phones

In most instances, your mobile phone company should be able to recycle your old phone for you at no charge. As noted above, in California, cell phone companies are required by law to perform this service.

There are also a number of non-profit and for profit organizations that will recycle your old cell phone. For example, the 911 Cell Phone Bank works with law enforcement agencies and associations to provide free 911 capable cell phones. According to the organization, they donate roughly 1,500 phones per month.

Computers and Peripheral Hardware

Most major computer hardware retailers, like Apple, HP, IBM, Gateway and Dell, have some kind of "product take-back" program in place. For a small fee (in most cases), owners can send their old hardware back to the manufacturer for processing, recycling and disposal. Other retailers, like Office Depot, may offer free electronics recycling on designated dates.

There are also a number of charitable, non-profit and for-profit organizations that accept old computers for recycling. In some cases, giving away old electronics may even be characterized as a charitable donation with positive tax consequences for the donor, so hang onto those receipts from the receiving organization.

Don't Forget!

Prior to recycling or disposing of your old cell phone or computer, it is very important that you remove all personal data from the unit. In the case of a cell phone, you should delete all your stored numbers and call log files. You may even want to remove the SIM card that holds your personal data.

Extra care and diligence should be taken prior to disposing of a computer, which may have many years worth of your personal email, document and image files. There are many free hard drive cleaner utility programs available. For more information, simply query "free hard drive eraser cleaner" from your favorite search engine.


Recycling and the proper disposal of electronics is a major part of the solution to our growing e-waste problem. Responsible practices in the manufacture of hardware must also contribute to the solution. Regardless of whether these positive actions are mandated by industry or government, progress occurs when individuals and businesses change their thinking about e-waste.

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