You throw out 44 pounds of electronic waste a year. Here’s how to keep it out of the dump.
Recycle old tech at e-waste centers.
Technology is advancing faster than it breaks, which means we’re upgrading our devices—and getting rid of our old gadgets—more often than ever. In 2016 alone, the United States trashed about 44 pounds of electronic waste per person. And today’s devices, from iPhones to simple alarm clocks, often contain toxic chemicals like lead, cadmium, and mercury. If you just throw them away, those poisons will end up in the environment.
“The whole idea is to avoid putting electronics in the landfill,” says Danny Muller, Assistant Supervisor of the University of San Diego’s Electronics Recycling Center. “E-waste is about 2 percent of all the waste in a landfill, but it represents about 70 percent of all hazardous waste—and it’s contributing most quickly to the growth of landfills.”
Scrapping your old gear isn’t just harmful to the environment; it’s bad for your wallet, too. Although you can recycle your tech through multiple channels, we recommend that you visit a center specifically designed to handle e-waste. These organizations may even offer tax deductions for your donations, and let you pick up some cheap tech while you’re there. Here’s how to safely and responsibly dispose of your old gadgets.
Find a local electronics recycling center
In general, Muller says, you’ll find a few different types of centers in your area. Many of the big recycling centers don’t serve regular consumers, and if they do, you can only bring in your waste on specific days of the week or month. Smaller collection centers, however, make it easier to donate, and they’ll do a lot of the heavy lifting for you.
“If the electronics still contain some value, we’ll sell it on our eBay store or in our storefront,” Muller says. “We’ll sort items that are not worth selling in our warehouse, and they will get picked up by a certified recycler once per week. Everything will get broken down and sent to different plants and vendors where their raw materials can be used again.”
A simple Google (or Google Maps) search of terms like “electronics recycling” or “e-waste” should turn up a ton of options in your area. From there, you can differentiate the big recycling centers from the consumer-focused collection centers. Some of the latter are local shops with a variety of monikers, while others share a name—for example, multiple cities around the country host e-waste centers called Free Geek, named after a particularly successful shop in Portland, OR. If you find a location that sells used tech back to the community, you know you’re headed in the right direction.
Safely recycle your devices
Once you’ve found an e-waste center near you, it’s time to recycle your electronics. You don’t need to make a trek down there in every time you toss an old light bulb, though. “My recommendation would be to have some kind of e-waste bin in your house that’s designated specifically for electronic waste,” says Muller. “And then every six months or so you can just empty it, bring it by, and we’ll sort it all out.” E-waste centers may charge you a small amount to recycle certain items, such as batteries, but they’ll tackle most items for free.
Before you turn them in, you’ll want to take care with hard drives and other tech that might contain personal information. You can securely erase them yourself by encrypting and resetting or formatting the device, but many recycling centers will also do this task for you.
“We have machines here that can erase hard drives to Department of Defense standards, so there’s no way to retrieve data from the disk,” says Muller. That way, they can resell the clean drives in the store. Alternatively, he says a recycling center can demolish hard drives onsite and give you a certificate of destruction. They’ll even let you watch as staff members mangle your drive, so you can feel secure that nothing will happen to your data.
Get tax deductions and buy used tech
It’s nice to know you’re doing your part for the environment, but it’s even better if you get something tangible out of it. Depending on the recycling center, you may be able to deduct the cost of your donation from your taxes, which will let you get a little money back. To do this, you need to donate to a nonprofit recycling center—you won’t get a tax deduction if you recycle your old devices with the manufacturer or a retailer like Best Buy.
When you donate, ask for a receipt—the center will usually provide a list of items you donated and their condition. You can keep that or give it to your accountant when you do your taxes. This serves as proof, allowing you to deduct the value of the donation. However, your receipt won’t include the price of each item, so you’ll need to look this up yourself.
“It’s up to the customer to research the value of their items and make a fair appraisal,” says Muller. “The best way to find the real market value is to look at sold listings on eBay. Don’t just look at active listings—items that people are currently trying to sell—look at the history of sold items.” You should be able to find a similar item in similar condition and see what it sold for.
Want to save even more money? Consider buying your “new” tech from an e-waste center, if your local one offers old stuff for sale. Muller says they rigorously test everything they get, and they sell anything in decent working condition (or easily fixable). Speaking from experience, the prices are fantastic: At the University of San Diego’s recycling center, where Muller works, I’ve purchased an HDMI-based A/V receiver for $35, an 8-port Ethernet switch for $4, and a wireless phone charger for less than a buck. (The switch was missing a power cable, but thankfully, the recycling center also sells power cables of all shapes and sizes, so I was able to find a compatible one for only $2). They even sell old desktop PCs, laptops, and speakers, and maintain a small desk where customers can test out equipment for themselves to make sure it fits their needs.
Not only will buying used save you money, but it continues the cycle of avoiding landfills. “If you don’t need a new piece of technology, don’t buy it—or think about buying used,” Muller says. “There’s so much consumption of new technology in our country, and that’s really where it starts.” If you can avoid over-consuming and throwing away old items out of convenience, you’ll do yourself and the environment a big favor.