The Gadget Afterlife: Sell, Donate or Recycle Old Electronics

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Give new life to your old devices this holiday season. 

Like many families, we have a gadget drawer, which recently morphed into a gadget closet, bursting with random cables and power cords, prehistoric gadgets, archaic mobile phones, old-school PDAs (remember the Palm Pilot?) and obsolete computers the size of baby elephants. So, before we whipped out the wallets this Christmas for our next “gotta have it” gadget, my husband and I agreed that these old devices deserve an afterlife.

old electronics Image Credit: D'Arcy Norman

The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that over 200 million pieces of computer parts are being generated annually — and growing. Yet, only 18 percent is being recycled, leaving over 150 million pieces of equipment (e-waste) in our landfills every year. I’ve seen how toxic this waste can be if it isn’t managed properly, so I did some digging and learned how to do it safely.

Generally, we have three options: sell, donate, recycle. Craigslist and eBay are great options for selling, but it’s too time-consuming for our crazy busy family, so we’ve opted to donate some and recycle the rest.

Donate: Giving Back One Device at a Time

My husband and I both work in the computing industry, where innovation happens fast. As soon as we bring home a new device, technology advancements lure us to the next shiny object. So most of the gadgets we have in our household are still considered current and can easily be donated to charity.

My favorite charity is Goodwill Industries, and we make a run at least twice a year. I recently learned that Dell partnered with Goodwill to develop the Reconnect Program, which fosters responsible e-waste recycling by keeping electronics out of landfills and preventing them from being dumped overseas. The program also goes a long way to create green jobs, provides training and educational programs, and helps employ people with disabilities or other barriers to employment. Dell says the Reconnect Program offers more than 2,000 donation locations for all kinds of used computer equipment and they accept any brand in any condition, including just about any computing peripheral. You can get a firsthand look at your impact by using the “Calculate Your Impact” tool located on the Goodwill site. I checked, and donating a working computer to this program amounts to 6.9 hours of training and education for someone in need. If you itemize your taxes, you may also be eligible for a tax deduction through qualified programs. Check with your certified tax specialist to get details if this is the route you go.

Other charity options include Recycle for Charities, an eco-friendly site with a “give back” mantra. Just round-up your donation (old cell phones, PDAs, iPods, digital cameras, etc.), select your charity, print out the ready-made shipping label and tax donation forms, then ship. Similarly, Close the Gap makes reused and refurbished computers available to underprivileged people in Africa and other developing countries. And Digital Links has distributed more than 50,000 reused computers to the developing world and provided access to technology for over 125,000 people.

Recycling: It’s Easier than You Might Think

All electronics, working or not, should be recycled properly if you decide not to sell or donate them. Throwing away any electronic device is dangerous and hazardous. Most electronics contain significant levels of toxic materials like mercury, lead, sulfur, and silicon and beryllium oxide that may be harmful to the environment, animals living in it, and to us.

As you might imagine, Dell is a big proponent of recycling computers, too, and has a full-page dedicated to the options. From store credits to refurbished PCs, this site gives you many options for doing the right thing. Sony has conveniently located boxes at select store locations and will take your old computer and any of their own products. HP offers a trade-in allowance for new HP products. For Apple products, including iPads, you should always return them directly. Apple will give you a gift card to use at their store with the estimated value of your product. If you live in Missouri, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Texas, or Virginia, fill out this request form to participate in Apple’s recycling by mail program. Most of the other leading device manufacturers have some kind of program with benefits, so worth checking them out.

For a one-stop shop, Best Buy accepts most electronics for recycling and will offer a Best Buy gift card for your used video games, musical instruments and select used electronics, including TVs, DVD players, monitors, cell phones and more. Restrictions apply, so be sure to check with Best Buy directly. They also have permanent drop boxes for cell phones, rechargeable batteries and printer cartridges. Target said they would buy back my old HTC phone for as much as $50, offering me a Target gift card. Check out AT&T retailers, eBay, Office Depot, Staples, and other retailers for more info on their programs, many of which have tons of information and guidance for recycling tech gear on their web sites.

Never Throw Out Batteries, Even the Little Ones

Most rechargeable batteries contain metals that are harmful to the environment, but when recycled properly, can be reclaimed and used to make new products. Funded by a consortium of leading device manufacturers, the Call2Recycle program keeps millions of pounds of batteries from entering landfills each year, preserving natural resources and helping to fulfill their mission for a more sustainable earth. Consumers just collect their rechargeable batteries and cell phones, then log onto Call2Recycle.org or call 1-877-2-RECYCLE to find a nearby public drop-off location that accepts them hastle free.

Be Safe and Protect Your Privacy

One last thing: Before you sell, donate or recycle, be sure to move your personal files and media from your old device and erase (or wipe) your hard drive. In spite of all the good intentions of each of the programs and services I’ve shared here, you never want to neglect your digital privacy and security by putting it in someone else’s hands. There are a number of products and services out there to painlessly wipe your computer, including WipeDrive and KillDisk, and it’s easy to move your photos and personal documents to a USB flash drive or to the cloud for temporary storage using products like Microsoft’s SkyDrive or Dropbox. And some retailers will offer to transfer all your personal data from one device to another when you’re making a purchase.

Call to Action

According to the Consumer Electronics Association, each household in the United States has on average at least 24 electronic devices ranging from alarm clocks, computing devices and TVs to refrigerators. As our device portfolios grow, the amount of e-waste we’ll generate will be astounding. Visit Earth911 for a massive amount of interesting information about the impact our connected lifestyles are having on the environment. And if you’re still looking for more information, visit the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to find all sorts of additional data and guidance on where and how to recycle and ways to nurture our planet.

So, if you find yourself hoarding electronics and gadgets like my family has because you just don’t know what to do with them, now you know…and you no longer have an excuse. Take action, and report back here on what you dropped off and share your overall experience. Easy? Rewarding? Pain in the neck? We want to know.

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