Recycling time

My dad has two old computers, a 21-inch CRT and a 15-inch LCD, a handful of old cell phones, and a few ancient digital cameras sitting around his office, taking up space and gathering dust. This year’s holiday haul will eventually join the heap. He doesn’t use these things anymore, but he’s not quite sure what to do with them. Sound familiar?

There are some private recycling services and places where you can donate your used tech goods (see “Recycling now,” below). You can also try to resell the stuff via online auction sites. But my father doesn’t want to cull through multiple donation and recycling programs to see which one wants or will take his stuff, and he doesn’t want to sell it at auction. He just wants a place to drop it all off, one that will handle it properly so that he won’t end up drinking toxic bits of it a few years down the line.

The government wants to help, really. A couple of bills, a new congressional group, and a Government Accountability Office report all attest to these good intentions. Problem is, all of these initiatives and proposals have remained just that — initiatives and proposals, not action.

On the government recycling table

Congress considered a new tack on recycling last year with a bill that would have given a tax incentive to companies and individuals for recycling their tech goods, while at the same time mandating an investigation into the possibility of a national recycling plan. The Electronic Waste Recycling Promotion and Consumer Protection Act was introduced in the Senate (S. 510) back in March, and in the House of Representatives (H.R. 4316) in November. It then went into that black hole known as a congressional committee, and has yet to emerge.

Even earlier in the year, Congress took a stab at the problem through another proposed bill, the National Computer Recycling Act (H.R. 425). This one would have put the Environmental Protection Agency in charge of a national recycling and grant program that would collect a fee (up to $10) when anyone purchases certain types of computer equipment. The money collected would have been used to provide grants to individuals, local governments, or private organizations that recycle or reuse computers and their parts. This bill has been proposed several times before; once again, it got stuck in committee.

Some representatives formed the Congressional E-Waste Working Group in May to study and educate members of Congress on the issue. Although the group has recommended adoption of a national recycling plan, this hasn’t happened.

Even the GAO has gotten into the act with a study it released in November. Among other things, the report concluded that having different recycling requirements in different states would place an undue burden on manufacturers, which argues for a national plan. The report also recommended that the Environmental Protection Agency help Congress draft legislation that would help people overcome the financial barriers to recycling. Right now, private companies often charge US$20 to $30, or even more, to get rid of your old equipment; that’s because these companies don’t make enough money to make a profit by selling raw materials they extract from tech waste. Unless you can drop something off at a local charity — many of which are getting more and more choosey about what they’ll accept — at a minimum you’ll have to pay shipping costs to get your goods to a recycler.

Given all this attempted action, it’s clear the tech recycling problem has registered on the congressional consciousness. We’ll see solutions enacted, however, only when the financial question has been resolved.

The money pit

Although it’s easy to get people to agree that we need to do something about our growing mass of tech waste, it’s far from easy to get anyone to agree on what we should do, and how we should pay for it.

I tend to agree with the GAO that having individual states come up with their own regulations would be cumbersome; worse, it would leave some of us with good options, and others with none, or bad ones. It would be great to have the problem handled by a single national organization, with local drop-off points, that could channel tech goods to other agencies for donation or to companies with government-approved recycling programs. That way I wouldn’t have to spend a lot of time checking out dozens of local and national sites or stores; I would always know to take my goods when I’m ready to be rid of them. It would be a post office for tech parcels, of sorts.

Yes, that would mean the creation of yet another government agency, with all the potential for bureaucratic inefficiency and abuse that such agencies entail. But with the right public and/or private oversight, it should be possible to minimize the negatives. This would be better than simply giving grants to approved recycling companies in order to help cover their costs: While this approach would keep the wallet hit to you and me at a minimum (thereby helping remove the financial disincentive to recycle), it would do nothing to make recycling more convenient.

Regardless of how we decide to recycle, we’ll need to find some way to pay for the expense. I don’t mind the notion of paying a fixed tax surcharge on the tech goods I buy — say $10 or $15 for large items, $5 for smaller gadgets — to help defray the costs of eventual recycling and the agency that makes it convenient for me to do so. A deposit, like the one many of us pay when we buy drinks in cans or bottles and then get back when we turn the containers in for reuse or recycling, could also work; the return refund might make the plan palatable to those who don’t want to pay more taxes.

Giving tax breaks to companies who make environmentally friendly goods is another good idea; if we start out with products that are easier to dispose of safely, we’re much better off in the long run.

There are numerous options. Now it’s up to us and our government to pick one, so that our gadgets don’t turn into poisonous garbage.

Recycling now

While we wait for our government to act, here are some organizations that can help you get rid of your old gear now.

The National Cristina Foundation provides tech goods and training for students, persons with disabilities, and others.

The Freecycle Network helps you donate free goods to people who would like them.

TechSoup helps you find nonprofits or commercial companies that will reuse or recycle your goods.

Several tech companies, including Dell, Hewlett-Packard, and IBM, run recycling programs that will dispose of your old goods, for a fee. Check each site for pricing and procedure.

EBay runs a program called the Rethink Initiative, which provides information about options for handling your old gear, and can hook you up with charities or companies that will take your goods.

The National Recycling Coalition offers both information and a list of sites and groups through which you can donate or recycle your computer equipment.

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