How to Dispose of Laptops: Nitty-gritty

August 31, 2011

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Q: Could you suggest an eco-friendly way to dispose of old laptops?

Asked by Aditi Telang, MS ’06, Mountain View, Calif.

Race for Greener Electronics

So what if you just leave the laptops in the landfill? Although the EPA believes that electronics in properly managed landfills do not currently pose a threat to human health or the environment, the protective material in landfills will fail at some point. When that happens, the toxins in your electronics will run freely to the environment and do their due damage. And in the meantime, the valuable metals and other components aren't being reused, spurring more destructive mining in environmentally sensitive places such as the Eastern Congo, and driving up prices for electronics.

In laptops and other electronics, there are heavy metals known to cause brain damage even at low dose, including lead, nickel and cadmium. There are also toxins less known to the public—bromine, phthalates and arsenic acids—that serve as wire coatings in your devices. According to one Greenpeace report, bromine is in 40 percent of all electronic components tested. This corrosive chemical is famous for irritating skin, eyes and the respiratory tract. Phthalates and arsenic acids are among the most toxic chemicals known: both can cause organ dysfunction and cancer. Although computers are relatively safe during normal use, careless disposal can release the chemicals to the environment.

Fortunately, the story doesn't end here. Based on the same research, one machine with toxic components often has a counterpart free of the worst chemicals. Technology exists to assemble a minimally toxic machine: it is simply a matter of who designs it first. Thanks to an incentive created by EU legislation on hazardous substances in electronic equipment, laptop makers are already moving in the right direction. As a consumer, you can vote with your wallet and give the electronic giants more reason to create greener personal computing.

However, there may still be times when all goodhearted efforts and consumer choices fail. The profit motive reigns supreme, after all, and right now, exporting e-waste to other countries is so easy, and the resulting profit is so big that more sustainable alternatives face an uphill struggle. This doesn't need to be the case: European Union countries have laws against exporting waste, but they are the only developed countries with such laws. Silicon Valley has long been the leader in developing new computer technology. Isn't it time that we should become the leader in ecologically responsible computer design and recycling, too?

Electronics Recycling on The Farm

The Stanford campus is actively going green by constructing energy-efficient academic buildings, encouraging biking, carpooling and public transportation, and many other initiatives. What does it do in terms of e-waste recycling and diverting other material from landfills? The SAGE writing team visited the Stanford Recycling Center to find out.

In California, landmark legislations like the Electronic Waste Recycling Act of 2003 and the 2006 Universal Waste Law regulate the handling of e-waste, including laptop computers. The 2003 legislation imposed electronics recycling fees on devices such as monitors purchased in California.

The "Universal Waste Law" makes it illegal for individuals and small businesses to commit any device containing circuit boards or displays to landfills. Both laws create incentives and mandates for California residents to follow the 3Rs—reduce, reuse, recycle—and handle their e-waste properly. Cooperating with the State's regulations, Stanford's waste management contractor, PSSI, makes it easy for departments, individuals and community members to recycle electronics. Departments and students can discard their small electronics in designated buckets at several drop-off locations in student housing and academic buildings. They can also contact the department property administrators to pass bigger equipment to proper recyclers. The Campus Recycling Center is also open to the public, so community members can bring laptop computers and other electronics to the office at 339 Bonair Siding during regular business hours.

Many computer makers, including Apple, Dell and HP, also have exchange, recycling and take-back centers in the area, and many manufacturers and recyclers accept old electronics by mail:

1. Dell Computer Exchange offers trade-up options and gift cards for product take-back. You can also purchase refurbished PCs from Dell to act out the "reuse" mantra.

2. HP Computer Exchange takes laptops and cellular phones of any brand. They also recycle printers and cartridges.

3. Apple hopes to design products that are recyclable, and makes an effort to ensure that prison inmates or third world laborers do not recycle their products.

4. Gateway Computers Exchange offers cash for your old technology.

Rebecca Nie is a master’s student in applied physics.

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