As March comes to an end and we long for the appearance of the lamb, it is time to dust off the summer wardrobe and clean out the closets. As I head down to the garage, I suddenly realize that I have conveniently stored enough used electronics and computers to explain why my car has been parked outside in the snow for 3 months.
My first thought was to just kick this stuff to the curb and let Waste Management deal with it all. Then, I realized that I live in Illinois and there’s laws against doing such a thing. (Public Act 97-0287 for those keeping score.) As of January 1, 2012 all TVs, Computers, DVD Players, Electronic Mice (I think it is funny they had to specify ELECTRONIC mice), Fax Machines, etc. are banned from landfills. Why? What’s the big deal anyway?
If you want to know more about what your state does or does not allow in trash collection, check out this quick reference guide.
Why is proper disposal of electronics important?
The Environmental Protection Agency is all over this one. Lead, mercury, batteries, cathode ray tubes, and even Hexavalent Chromium are found in electronics. Hexavalent Chromium, people! (Ok, I don’t know what that is, but it’s on the list of Hazardous Materials just like everything else mentioned.) When you consider that of annually 20-50 million electronic items, 85% could find themselves into landfills, it makes sense to avoid the air and ground pollution that results. Did you know that GOLD is used in the manufacture of circuit boards? Would you throw away that watch?
Ok, fine. I’ll recycle.
I quickly discovered that many communities, including my own, offer services to either pick up or locations to drop off unwanted and obsolete electronic items. Awesome! I thought, but if they don’t in turn discard this stuff in the same landfills, what exactly is done with it? Maybe it was an excuse to put off cleaning the garage, but I decided to do some investigating before I loaded up my Hexavalent Chromium and headed to a recycling drop-off.
What’s the process?
Automated and Manual separation. It’s pretty labor intensive, but every item received by a recycling facility is first logged and inventoried. It’s then stripped down and divided into main categories – glass, plastic, scrap metal and wiring, hazardous materials, hard drives, batteries, ink/toner cartridges, and printed circuit boards. Further breakdown continues and the process continues until no further component separation is possible. In the end, every single piece of your computer is inventoried, stripped, categorized, stripped again, and placed in containers designated with specific instructions on handling.
What does the recycling company do with your stuff?
Let’s start with the scary stuff. Someone has to do it, but thankfully this is left to the experts. Individual items that are known to contain hazardous materials such as mercury-filled tubes are sent to a specialized facility for further recycling.
Printed circuit boards are shipped off to accredited companies that specialize in the recovery of copper, gold, silver, etc. Batteries are also separated and shipped to facilities that can further extract individual materials such as cobalt, cadmium, nickel, and steel.
Destroy Hard Drives
Wait! What happens to my hard drive? How do I know my data is destroyed? This one concerned me, to be honest. You have a few options here, and it really depends what method or service you choose to do your electronics recycling. If in doubt, take your hard drive out before releasing ownership of any computer and keep it. (It takes up less space in your garage at the very least.) If you are using a community-sponsored drop off program, it is likely they do not offer any type of hard drive destruction guarantees, so inquire before you make the trip.
If you find yourself with a stack of hard drives, or want to make sure your computer’s hard drive is properly destroyed, find a company that provides:
- A secure chain of custody
- A maintained log of manufacturer/serial number of each hard drive
- A process that completely destroys (shreds) the device – not just a degaussing or wipe
- Provides an itemized certificate of destruction
- Properly recycles or otherwise disposes of the shredded form of your hard drive.
The rest – sometimes copyright and/or security reasons prevent re-use of items. Sound cards, CD-Roms, memory cards, etc. can’t easily be re-purposed so they are shredded in a similar manner to hard drives. They are then shipped off to recycling facilities that handle plastic and metal.
Don’t fool yourself. There’s a business happening here. Scrap metal, precious metal, glass, plastics – they all have a value and there’s an industry happening. I’m really not here to judge recycling efforts, advocate going green, or question why my old computer is being sold off in parts. I just wanted a clean garage. It’s spring, after all and I’m ready to watch some baseball.