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Not all electronics recyclers are green; learn the best way to get rid of an old laptop

By Rebecca Nie | 7 Feb 2011

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QUESTION: Could you suggest an eco-friendly way to dispose of old laptops? Asked by Aditi Telang, Mountain View, Calif.

ANSWER: Oh, the awesomeness of portable computing! Laptops and tablets are ubiquitous here at Stanford, and with campus-wide wifi, it’s easy to forget the days when the Internet was something you had to sit down at a desk to access. But how many of us, while playing with our newest laptop—on the lawn, in the backyard or anywhere—stop to think about where and how to dispose of the old one? It turns out there are many good reasons why all of us should think about that, from the health of the planet and our fellow humans, to the security of our personal data. Taking a little care with our outmoded gadgets can ensure that their physically dangerous components don’t end up in the wrong places, and that our sensitive personal information doesn’t end up in the wrong hands. You might even see a little cash end up back in your pocket.

Boy hired to haul electronic scrap from Alaba market in Lagos, Nigeria to this nearby informal dump sitting on a swamp. Imported scrap televisions and computers that could not be repaired get deposited here and burned. (Photo: ©2006 Basel Action Network)

At first glance, simply recycling your laptop may seem sufficient. But where and how is this recycling done? According to U.S. Environmental Protection Agency‘s estimate, American recyclers export 61 percent of electronic waste to communities like Guiyu, China or Lagos, Nigeria, where uneducated workers dismantle electronics with brute force to extract precious metals and then burn everything else. This creates a disaster: the lead intake of Guiyu’s residents is 50 times higher than the tolerable amount.

Some recyclers may promise to take care of your e-waste in the United States, and rally prison inmates to dismantle computers just like the Chinese do it, and with as little protection. Environmentally, this kind of unregulated recycling can be worse than simply tossing your old computer in a landfill, where there’s at least some chance that the toxins won’t be released to the environment until the landfill’s barriers fail. Plus, it’s hardly reassuring to think that someone behind bars has access to your old hard drive.

Fortunately, an increasing number of recyclers are discovering ways to profit without harming the environment, and the EPA has compiled a list to help you find them. In accordance with consumer demands, manufacturers like Apple, HP and Dell offer “take back” options with most electronics, and some even give gift cards in exchange for old products.

Finding new uses for your old laptop can be a more appealing option than recycling it. A computer may be obsolete for you, but not for a non-governmental organization (NGO) or school. Donating used laptop computers through agencies such as National Cristina Organization and TechSoup Global can be an eco-friendly and humanitarian way to dispose of your laptop. Just remember to wipe your hard drive to remove any sensitive personal information before passing it on. For the technologically advanced, IBM has an online tutorial about repurposing your old computer—into a file server, for example, with Linux.

Electronic cords fill the receptacles at Stanford's Recycling Center. (Photo: Maika Nicholson)

There’s one more thing to consider—do you really need a new computer, MP3 player or smart phone? This might be a little heretical coming from the heart of Silicon Valley, but it’s no secret that tech companies maximize profit by making electronics fragile enough to break down not long after their warranties expire—and spend untold millions on marketing to convince us that we need the new, new thing, when the old new thing still works just fine. This planned obsolescence means more money out of our pockets and more pollution into our environment. Sometimes, being truly tech savvy means knowing when you don’t need to upgrade. As consumers, we can exercise our environmental muscles not just at the disposal stage, but also at the start by demanding more durable and less toxic electronics.

Read More: What are the laws about recycling electronics and which brands are the most eco-friendly?

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