Quick! How many electronic products do you have? Televisions, cell phones, computers, tablets, game consoles, e-readers, fitness trackers, programmable thermostats – they add up. According to the Consumer Technology Association, in 2013 the average American household owned 24 consumer electronics products.
And according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, these products are the fastest-growing component of what Americans are throwing away.
That’s a problem. Products like computers, TVs and cell phones contain toxic metals, including lead, cadmium and mercury. In the garbage, those metals can be released, polluting air and water, and putting people and the environment at risk.
These products also contain many valuable materials – aluminum and steel, precious metals like gold, and rare earth elements – that can be extracted and reused, but only if they’re not languishing in the landfill or gathering dust in a forgotten corner of a closet.
In fact, says Patrick Morgan of Metro’s Recycling Information Center, in Oregon it is illegal to put TVs, computers, laptops or monitors in the garbage. People doing so knowingly may be fined. Instead, these products must be recycled.
Here are some tips on how to safely dispose of anything with a battery or a cord – and extend their useful lives.
Recycle televisions, computers and other items free of charge
Free recycling for some items
It’s illegal to put TVs, monitors and computers - including desktops, laptops and tablets - in the garbage. But you can recycle them for free at locations around the region, along with printers, keyboards and mice.
Oregon E-Cycles is a statewide program funded by manufacturers that provides safe recycling of a range of electronics. You can take up to seven items covered under the program to a participating collection site and recycle them for free. Some locations also accept additional items, such as speakers, scanners or game consoles, but may charge a fee for those. You can find collection locations and information about what’s accepted on the Oregon E-Cycles website.
All Oregon E-Cycles recyclers are required to follow a set of best practices for worker safety and environmental protection. In some cases you may need to erase your own hard drives to protect your privacy. But, says Morgan, some recyclers will give a guarantee of information destruction.
In addition to E-Cycles drop-off sites, many manufacturers provide take-back programs. Some offer free shipping or gift cards if your device can be reused or refurbished.
Of course, donating a TV, computer or gadget that is still in good working condition ensures the longest use of the resources that made them. Wipe your personal data from any devices before delivering them to a nonprofit drop box.
Most cell phones are not ending up at recyclers
Cell phones are a gold mine. Really. According to the EPA, for every one million smart phones recycled, 75 pounds of gold, 772 pounds of silver, 33 pounds of palladium and more than 35,000 pounds of copper can be reused.
But only a small percentage of cell phones are actually recycled – numbers range between 10 and 14 percent – meaning that many of them are most likely gathering dust in drawers or ending up in the trash can.
You can extend a phone’s useful life by selling or donating it. Morgan recommends removing the SIM card and SD card first and then looking online for instructions for removing any remaining data.
And don’t forget to donate, recycle or sell the charger along with the phone.
Other household gadgets can also be recycled
What to do with your old clock radio, shorted-out toaster, busted vacuum cleaner, broken blender or outdated game console?
It’s not illegal to put these in the trash, says Morgan, but they all contain valuable materials that can be extracted and reused. Think aluminum, steel, plastic and so on.
For items that aren’t in good enough shape to donate, a range of facilities around greater Portland accept them for recycling. It’s also worth checking whether a manufacturer has a take-back program.
But whatever you do, says Tiffany Gates, solid waste planner with Metro’s Regional Illegal Dumping Patrol, “please, please, don’t put them on the curb, or on the corner.” Metro’s patrol cleans up 3,000 dump sites a year. If you want to offer things to the community, she says, keep them within your yard or advertise using websites like Craigslist, Freecycle or Nextdoor.
Your old refrigerator needs special treatment
When it comes to disposing of defunct appliances, certain ones, like refrigerators, freezers, air conditioners, and water-coolers, are in a special category. Because they contain Freon, a coolant that is toxic when released into the atmosphere, they must be handled with care. And as with some electronics, Morgan says, it’s also illegal in Oregon to put coolant-containing appliances in the trash.
Find recycling options for electronics and appliances
Portland nonprofit turns old computers into new ones
Oregon E-Cycles coordinates a network of locations where people can drop off electronics covered under the program free of charge. Free Geek in Southeast Portland is one of those collection sites.
Free Geek rose out of two challenges. One was the need to recycle unwanted computer equipment. The other was the need for affordable computers, and the knowledge to use them. “So we pointed those problems towards each other,” says Colleen Dixon, Free Geek’s director of development and public services.
Free Geek takes in around 1.25 million pounds a year of electronics from individuals and also from institutions like universities. Many devices, ranging from computers and cell phones to game consoles, are refurbished on-site with the help of a volunteer crew. Those products are then either donated to other nonprofits or made available for purchase. Those that can’t be reused are recycled.
In exchange for their work, volunteers get a free computer, education and tech support. Free Geek also offers computer classes on site and at other locations around town.