Top Electronics Questions

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Electronics was the top search on Earth911’s Recycling Directory in 2009. There’s no question that the current demand is great for electronics recycling, and with increased demand comes increased confusion.

We get lots of questions from consumers looking to dispose of e-waste, and we’re here to help. Here are some answers to some of the more common questions about electronics.

Question #1: Why do I have to pay to recycle electronics?

When you recycle, you’re doing a good thing for the environment, so this good deed shouldn’t cost you any money. This seems like a fool-proof statement, until you consider the costs associated with recycling.

The total annual global volume of e-waste is expected to reach about 40 million metric tons. In the U.S., we generated an estimated 1.5 billion pounds of e-waste in 2006 alone. This includes about 44 million computers and televisions. Photo: Amanda Wills, Earth911.com

For other materials such as paper and plastic, the recycling process does not involve breaking down products and handling toxic ingredients. But your televisions and computer monitors are not made of one material, so there is prep work in order to extract the valuable parts.

The reality is that there is typically enough value in the extracted parts that most electronics recycling won’t cost you money. The notable exceptions are the aforementioned computer monitors and televisions, since there is considerable cost to properly dispose of the lead and mercury in them.

It’s one reason why the state of California charges an extra recycling fee every time you buy a new TV or monitor that will pay for disposal.

What you’ll often find is that many electronics recyclers will not even accept these products so they won’t have to charge you. In Earth911’s Recycling Directory, there are 42 percent more listings that accept computers than those that accept televisions, even though both products are in high demand by consumers and can be recycled.

For those that are opposed to paying to recycle, keep in mind that you’ll likely have to pay to throw the product away as well. If you put a TV out at the curb, it probably won’t be accepted by your garbage company or come with a “bulk item” charge. If you take it to a landfill, you’re going to be charged a tipping fee. You’re better off taking it to a recycler.

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Question #2: Can I make money for recycling certain electronics?

Now for the positive economic side of electronics recycling: Many of these products can earn you some cash. In particular, you can find mail-in programs for smaller electronics, such as cell phones and MP3 players. Retailers like Best Buy and Costco offer trade-in programs for electronics still in working condition, so you can also get store credit for responsible disposal. Staples has offered store credit for used inkjet cartridges for years.

Most of the eligible products have to be portable electronics so they can be easily mailed, but you’re also likely to go through these items faster than that big screen television. The profits may also seem modest with a small number of electronics, but if you get all the old cell phones that your friends and family have been stockpiling for no reason, it will start to add up.

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Question #3: How do I know which electronics are recyclable?

Obviously, the types of electronics accepted will depend on the recycler and what it is equipped to handle. However, many e-waste recyclers will use the phrase, “We accept anything with a cord or batteries.” This is because it’s a very similar process to recycle any of these products, and all of them are mostly comprised of metals and plastics.

If you have something like a microwave or electric toothbrush, it’s always good to call ahead to see if the product is accepted. You can also ask when you buy a new product if the store has a recycling program for your old one.

In the case of electronics that aren’t really electronic, such as CDs and video tapes, you may have a tough time finding a recycler since there isn’t much value in these products. Keep in mind that these products also don’t contain toxic materials that would pose problems in a landfill.

Question #4: Is there a way to identify toxic electronics vs. trash-safe ones?

The more toxic metals will be found in products with circuit boards, such as cell phones and computers. You’ll also find flame retardants like bromine in anything with a fan, such as video game consoles, since these electronics tend to get hot when in use. Manufacturers like Apple have been able to reduce the presence of these metals, but by no means should these products be considered “trash-safe.”

On the flip-side, any time the electronic device is not housed in a plastic shell, it’s a good indication that there isn’t anything toxic inside. While you may consider other electronics to be safe for the trash, there are likely recycling options nearby.

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Question #5: What can I do to prolong the life of my electronics?

The easiest way to avoid recycling is to continue using an electronic device. In today’s tech-savvy world, newer is typically better, but if you’re content with an old model there are plenty of ways to increase the life span.

Big box stores such as Best Buy will often accept your working electronics for recycling and may even give you credit towards a new purchase. Photo: Flickr/*Grant*

One example is to purchase the warranty on any new electronics. That way, if a problem arises you can repair it instead of replace it, meaning you might need to dispose of one part instead of the entire device. This will also save you money.

For most portable electronics, battery optimization is a great way to prolong shelf-life.

If you remove the battery from your laptop while it’s plugged in or wait to make calls until you have good cell phone coverage, your batteries will last longer.

You then won’t be tempted to upgrade electronics when you go in for a battery replacement.

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Question #6: What should I do before recycling an electronic?

Like it or not, our electronic devices contain very personal data. You likely have passwords and financial information stored that can be troublesome if in the wrong hands. You definitely want to format any hard drives or SIM cards before recycling electronics.

It’s also smart to tie up any cords so the electronics are easier to transport. For heavy products, ask if a pick-up service is available so you don’t hurt yourself or break anything.

Question #7: What’s the difference between community collections, retail stores and recycling companies?

Honestly, all three collection points probably send electronics to the same place. It’s unlikely that your city or county has its own electronics recycling facility, and the same goes for retailers. So, the real question is, why do all of these sources collect electronics?

One reason is convenience. Many electronics recyclers are not set up to collect material directly from the public, but if you drop it off in a bin at your favorite retailer, it can be sorted and collected by trucks. The store also wins with increased foot traffic and positive PR.

Another reason is compliance. Several states have banned electronics from landfills, and the state will often budget money to collect electronics through community events so consumers have an easy way to dispose of them. In Oregon, these recycling programs are actually funded by electronics manufacturers under state law.

If you’re not dealing directly with an electronics recycler, you may want to ask which company is being used to collect and process the material so you can investigate the company further.

Question #8: Is certification required to collect electronics for recycling?

Ah yes, the taboo of electronics recycling. How do you prevent your electronics from being exported overseas or put in a landfill after you did the right thing?

There are actually several forms of certification that an electronics recycler can obtain, but many of them revolve around the standards of ISO 14000. If you are talking to an e-waste recycler and they do not know what ISO 14000 is, that should raise a red flag. Here are some other questions to ask:

  • What percentage of the electronics are you able to reuse or recycle?
  • What is your process for disposing of heavy metals?
  • Are there any materials not processed directly at your facility?

This type of information will give you the confidence that your electronics are being disposed of properly.

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Trey Granger

Trey Granger is a former senior waste stream analyst for Earth911.
Trey Granger

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