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Published: Friday, 8/6/2004

Always think before you junk

What can I do with my old computer?

That question is just one part of the growing problem of electronic waste (e-waste). It involves discarded computer monitors, keyboards, printers, scanners, televisions, VCR and DVD players, cell phones, audio equipment, and other electronic devices.

People usually don t get old broken electronics devices repaired. The technology constantly improves and prices drop, so that it often makes more sense to buy a new, state-of-the-art unit rather than pay repair bills.

Nobody knows exactly how many personal computers see that last shutdown each year. People usually keep a computer for 3-5 years. The National Safety Council estimated that more than 60 million home and business personal computers were retired last year.

The U. S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that 250 million personal computers will become obsolete and targeted for replacement within the next 5 years.

Less than 20 percent are reused or recycled. The rest are thrown away, or put into storage. Typically, stored computers gather dust for a few years, until someone needs the storage space, and wonders why on Earth they saved that piece of junk.

Trashing an old computer is the worst answer.

It may be illegal in some areas because toxic materials in the components can get into the environment. An old computer monitor, for instance, may contain 4 pounds of lead, a toxic metal. Other components also contain materials that require careful handling beyond that available in a regular landfill.

Many consumers are aware of that problem, and want to dispose of old computers responsibly by recycling or donating to a charity or educational institution.

So how do you do it? Fortunately, there are a growing number of options that make it easier to recycle or donate an old computer.

Some retail stores, for instance, collect old computers for recycling.

Some online computer companies have programs in which consumers can return old computers for recycling or donation to charities.

A search of the Internet for computer recycling or computer donations will produce dozens of sites with information.

Try an EPA web site (www.epa.gov/epaoswer/osw/conserve/plugin/index.htm), for instance, which includes links to companies that have recycling programs. The Electronic Industries Association site (www.eiae.org) includes a searchable state-by-state guide to recycling and reuse programs, and a list of national recycling programs.

Long-term solutions to the e-waste problem may be much different.

Eric Williams, of UN University in Tokyo, discusses one in a new book ( Computers and the Environment ), published by Kluwer Academic Publishers. Mr. Williams says manufactures should put more effort into extending the life of electronic equipment by making upgrades easier.

Consumers would pressure manufacturers to do so, if only they were more aware of the environmental costs of computers, he believes. One example: The manufacture of an average desktop computer requires about 720 pounds of fuel and chemicals.

Keep that in mind when you decide an old computer s fate.



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