Monday, December 04, 2006

I'll have a Green Christmas

With blinding speed, companies upgrade their technology products and this holiday season will find lots of consumers with new computers, MP3 players, and printers. The hidden side effect of all this progress is tons of electronic waste. E-Waste consists of working monitors, computers, and printers that get stuck in the closet, basement, or garage until you move or decide to do spring cleaning and drag the item to the curb.

Fortunately in Lawrence, when e-waste is taken to the curb, it tends to disappear before the garbage trucks come to dump it in a landfill. A landfill is about the worst place computing technologies can go. E-waste contains lead, mercury, cadmium and other hazardous materials that affect the water we drink and the land we farm.

Before putting your e-waste to the curb, try to find a place to donate it. Lawrence is both cursed and blessed with a glut of good working computers. In Lawrence, most organizations usually won’t accept computers older than three to five years nor will they accept Macintoshes, though such computers can surf the internet and word process. To be fair, many organizations get many computers and don’t always have the IT resources to utilize donations. If you get “no” the first time, try calling a few weeks later as needs may have changed. Obviously ,reuse is not only a worthy goal but often leads to a tax deduction

If you can’t donate your e-waste, you might contact local, regional ,or national recycling companies. These places range from above board, noble and ethical to the downright sleazy. The sleazy operations charge you a small sum of money, they take what can be used to resell it for a profit and then take the left over and put it in a landfill. Ironically, the landfill might be the safest for the items as the alternative can actually be worse. Some “recyclers” take e-waste and use third-world labor to remove the valuable metals with techniques that are both dangerous to humans and the environment. These operations make sneaker sweatshops look like a walk in the park, pardon the pun. In fact, the Basel Action Network, www.ban.org, found computers from the Kansas Department of Aging in Lagos, Nigeria as well as various confidential data on donated hard drives .

To make sure your recycled computers end up in the right place, Bob Akers, Marketing Director of Surplus Exchange, www.surplusexchange.org, recommends asking five questions: 1)What happens to the items turned in to recycle?, 2)Are any retired electronics sent overseas?, 3)Can the recycling center offer a certificate of destruction?, 4) Do you have a reuse program? If so, how is it structured? 5) Are you approved by the EPA or KDHE? - Do you have letters of support on file? Non-profit recycling organizations like The Surplus Exchange are able to give you a potential tax deduction if they are able to use the equipment you donate. Given their civic mentality, they realize the value of older equipment and use older equipment to help non-profit organizations.

Even though manufacturers push consumers to buy new computers, they often ignore the impact to the environment. States such as California, Arkansas, Maine, Maryland, and Minnesota have e-waste laws on the books and Washington currently has pending legislation. Seeing the trend of moving to reduce e waste, companies like Dell and Apple will take your old computer back at no charge (HP charges a fee), hopefully to be recycled. On the manufacturing side, organizations like Greenpeace are campaigning to reduce the hazardous materials used in electronics. In fact, Greenpeace has created an Apple parody site at www.greenpeace.org/apple to encourage Apple to be more “green”.

If you have trouble ecologically disposing of your computing technology don’t rule out simply giving it away on online forums such as Larryville’s swapmeet (www.larryville.com), free classified ads online (craigslist.org) and in print (ljworld.com), and Freecycle (www.lifeinlawrence.com). Free computers go quickly on these forums, working or not. Computer hobbyists love to take a crack at fixing computers.

However you choose to get rid of your e-waste, be careful of any data that is contained on the system. Items such as hard drives, PDAs, and cell phones need to be completely erased of data. If you can’t securely erase the item, work with a recycler that will. If your computer won’t boot and thus you can’t erase the hard drive, remove the hard drive and save it as a backup or have a friend completely destroy it.

Whether you decide to donate your compute, recycle, or simply give it away, you can help prevent e-waste from piling up and damaging the environment.

So the next time you look at that stack of computers in the basement or in the office closet, think about the environmental impact of those units and what you can do to make sure the e-waste doesn’t end up back in our drinking water.