When you find a dusty old hard drive under the bed, or that long-dead monitor in the closet, spring cleaning suddenly gets complicated. So does shopping for a new computer, which, these days, raises the question of what to do with the old one. Dumping is out of the question, as computers contain neurotoxic heavy metals such as mercury and lead, which can leach into groundwater from landfills, or expose unprotected workers and communities in unregulated recycling programs abroad. Even the casings can contain toxic fire retardants known as polybrominated biphenyls (PBDEs), which can migrate out of plastics and have been found in house dust.

What to do?

If your old computer or parts of it still work, consider networking it with your new equipment. If it doesn't work, call a local repair shop (see your town's Yellow Pages) and give it one last chance before getting rid of it.

Donate old computers and other office equipment to schools, your local Y, and non-profit organizations that collect and repair old electronics to resell them. Find programs in Earth911's handy listing by clicking here.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has lists of resources for recycling computers, including companies with takeback programs.

When shopping for new equipment, ask whether the manufacturer has a program to take back and responsibly recycle/reuse components into new computers. Ask for products that do not use PBDEs, and have substantially reduced lead, mercury and cadmium. For more info, click here.

To reduce household expenses and your carbon footprint, look for the EPA's Energy Star label on computers. A qualified desktop will save you $30-50 in electricity costs over its lifetime. Every little bit and byte adds up!

This article originally appeared in Plenty in May 2008. The story was moved to MNN.com.

Copyright Environ Press 2008