Before you buy a new desktop or laptop for school or work, take a moment to ask yourself: Do I really need to shell out for a new one right now? On average, most computers are only kept for two years before they're tossed aside, making electronic, or e-waste, one of the largest growing waste problems worldwide, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. This is bad news for everyone, because computers contain hundreds of toxic chemicals such as lead, mercury, cadmium, brominated flame retardants, and polyvinyl chloride, which can cause cancer, respiratory illness, and reproductive problems. As computers pile up and degrade in landfills, these toxins are released into air, water and soil; they also poison scavengers and recyclers in the third world.

Can you upgrade what you've got? If your current machine still works, consider deleting old downloads and files, which may speed up its operations, and upgrading its memory. Check here for possibilities.

If you really do need a new computer, or have simply got to get the latest in touch-screen tech, you'll feel even better about getting it if you make arrangements to responsibly dispose of your old one, first.

Recycle it: Many computer companies, including Apple, Dell, Gateway, Sony and Toshiba, offer free recycling programs for their models. (See Consumer Reports for more info). Apple and Dell will even recycle computers made by other manufacturers if you buy a new model. The Dell Outlet store sells recycled, refurbished, upgraded computers at a lower-than-retail price, extending their lifespan well beyond the two-year mark.

Apple claims that, in 2006 alone, they recycled 13 million pounds of e-waste and expect to recycle 19 million pounds in 2010. They voluntarily comply with the Basel Convention, meaning that none of the e-waste they collect is shipped out of the United States. This is significant, because 50-80 percent of discarded computers are shipped overseas, according to Greenpeace, where they are dumped without community safety precautions, or even burned or dipped in acid baths to extract precious metals such as copper and gold. Shipping hazardous materials oversees for disposal technically violates international laws set forth by the Basel Convention, but to date, the United States hasn’t ratified this treaty, so the practice continues.

Donate it: One way to make sure your computer doesn't pollute impoverished communities abroad is to make sure it stays in this country, being productively used. The National Cristina Foundation is a non-profit that gives computers to disabled and economically disadvantaged children and adults in all 50 states and Canada.

The Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition estimates that only 10 percent of computers are recycled, but that percentage will improve if we do it, and tell our friends.

Story by Rachel Brown. This article originally appeared in Plenty in September 2008. The story was added to

How to recycle your computer
That glorious piece of electronic genius is full of toxic chemicals. Dispose properly.