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In the United States, a personal computer is a staple of many households. However, with rapidly improving technology, it doesn’t take long for those new computers to become obsolete. In fact, it is estimated that the average life cycle of a laptop computer is between two and three years and the average life cycle of a desktop computer is between four and five years before the owner replaces the computer with an updated model. Currently, only about 15 percent of those retired computers are recycled, with the remainder ending up discarded in landfills.
It is no surprise that between the low rate of recycling electronics and the high rate of electronics replacement that e-waste is quickly becoming a major issue in the United States. The Environmental Protection Agency has categorized discarded computers as “hazardous household waste”. A typical computer contains dioxins, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), mercury, chromium, and over a pound of lead. Some monitors may even contain up to eight pounds of lead. These toxins leach into ground water. If incinerated, these toxins are then also released into the air.
Several options exist for computer owners who wish to responsibly dispose of their computers. Computer recycling options can include donating the computers to non-profit organizations, returning computers to the original manufacturers, or recycling the computer’s components.
One of the most environmentally friendly ways to get rid of an unused personal computer is to donate the computer to a non-profit organization. Reusing the computer does not release toxins into the environment, nor does it take energy resources to break down useful components. Instead, the computers are donated to a non-profit organization that can refurbish the computers. These recycled computers are then either used by the non-profit organization or the non-profit sells the computers at a discounted price to help fund the NGO operations. The Environmental Protection Agency has a list of organizations available where used computers can be donated at no cost to the consumer.
Businesses that chose to donate their retired computers are often offered tax incentives in order to limit business e-waste. The 21st Century Classrooms Act provides initiatives to companies in order to encourage them to donate unused computers to either private or public schools. Not only does this benefit the environment, but it also benefits children who may otherwise not have access to computers.
In addition to non-profit organizations, many computer manufacturers and retailers will take unused computers. Some retailers, such as Best Buy, offer trade-in programs, buy-back programs, and free e-waste recycling programs depending on the condition and age of the computer. Dell and Apple offer programs where consumers can trade in or send in their retired computers after purchasing a new computer. The retired computers are then refurbished or recycled by the manufacturers. Depending on the age and condition of the computer, some manufacturers offer consumers a discount towards a new computer as part of their PC recycling program.
When no other options for reusing or donating the computer are available, the consumer can opt to have the computer components recycled. Many areas have privately owned recycling businesses that recycle electronics for a small fee. Nationally available services, such as PC Disposal, also allow consumers to purchase disposal services. Disposal services include sanitizing or destroying the hard drive to remove sensitive data. Following the destruction of the hard drive, usable computers are then refurbished and sold. For computers that are not in resale condition, PC recycling businesses will break down and recover useful components of the computer. Every computer contains valuable resources such as precious metals, copper, plastics, glass, and gold. By recycling these components, there is a reduction in the amount of precious minerals and elements that need to be mined, as well as a reduction in the energy resources needed to produce new materials.
With so many free and low-cost options available for computer recycling, the process of replacing a personal computer can be a more environmentally friendly event. Many times, a retired computer can even help people in need! With these options, it is difficult to understand why any computer’s final resting place would be a landfill.