If next February’s transition to digital-only TV broadcasting makes you a little nervous, step back and take a deep breath. The Environmental Protection Agency has created a handy page to help you determine if your TV will be affected. If it will be, you can extend the life of an analog TV by using a converter box or connecting it to a cable, satellite, or other pay service. If you decide to buy a digital TV and scrap your analog one, options exist beyond setting it on the sidewalk for the garbage truck. The same goes for an old computer, cell phone, or video game system lying around the house. Old electronics don’t disappear when you throw them away. Besides, someone else might be able to use it.
Electronics waste, or “e-waste,” is a fast-growing category of municipal solid waste. People discard electronics for a variety of reasons, including broken electronics that are not worth fixing or upgrading to new technology or to features or options that are not available on their old device. Nevertheless, the junk adds up. According to the EPA, in 2005, discarded electronics totaled about 2 million tons. It’s estimated that only about 15 to 20 percent of this e-waste was recycled. If you’re talking about TVs, 2 in 10 consumers replaced their sets in the last year, and 3 out of 10 that disposed of their sets threw them in the trash.
E-waste also accounts for 70 percent of the overall toxic waste in landfills. Electronics often contain lead and mercury, which can contaminate soil and drinking water. Even in small amounts, lead is harmful to humans, especially children. Older televisions use cathode ray tube models, which are 20 percent lead, or four to eight pounds per unit. Cell phones—with an average shelf life of about 18 months—also use lead for their coatings. With an estimated 500 million cell phones ready for disposal once new product lines come out, that’s 312,000 pounds of lead released. And if throngs of cathode ray tube owners ditch their TVs with the digital transition, that’s some seriously lead-heavy landfills.
So, before throwing out your old TV, cell phone, or computer, examine your options. If you can’t fix it, lease it, or upgrade it, consider donating it through an organization such as the Electronics Industry Alliance or Computers 4 Kids. Many organizations will accept used electronics and refurbish them for use in schools, charities, or for economically disadvantaged or disabled citizens. Despite being outdated, electronics in working condition retain value and are not necessarily at the end of their useful life.
If you decide to recycle your old device, first be sure to remove all the data from a computer hard drive or other information-storing device. Several websites, such as the Telecommunications Industry Association, Earth 911, and myGreenElectronics, provide useful information for locating recyclers in your area. Many large municipalities, including the District of Columbia, offer recycling centers for electronics. In addition, retailers such as Best Buy will recycle products for customers, employees, and consumers. Seventeen states and New York City have passed laws establishing statewide e-waste recycling programs, and several states have laws banning electronic waste from landfills. But no national approach has been adopted.
The TIA site also provides a section of questions for potential recyclers to find out how they manage waste. Some recyclers do not accept electronics from households, or export the waste to other business partners. Some states do not have laws in place to enforce recycling. Even in states that do have laws, recyclers sometimes circumvent them anyway, which means some of the waste ends up being diverted to other countries, where it pollutes landfills and the environment. It’s important to find a service that you can trust to take care of your device.
One man’s trash can be another man’s treasure. But if that trash is clearly unusable, see if you can find a way to keep its toxic materials out of landfills and conserve valuable resources. Chances are that TV or cell phone served you well, and it deserves a better future than an overcrowded landfill.