With the proliferation of household as well as personal consumer electronics, there’s a serious need for electronics recycling.

At one time, the average American household had one television, a couple of radios and maybe a walkman. And these items were used for years, if not decades.

But those days are long gone. In 2007, an estimated 3 million tons of consumer electronics, including televisions, DVD players and stereos, were discarded, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Of that amount, only 410,000 tons were recycled.

Recycling in general has increased in recent years. In 2008, 33 percent of the trash generated in the U.S., or 83 million tons, was recycled, according to the EPA. By comparison, only 6.4 percent, or 5.6 million tons, was recycled in 1960.

Some cities have established permanent collection sites for items that need to be recycled. Other cities hold special collection days one or more times a year.  Some cities have even outlawed the disposal in municipal dumps of batteries and other toxic materials associated with consumer electronics, though federal law permits it.

Private companies such as retailers have also become key parts of the recycling universe.

How does electronics recycling work

Recycling consists of collecting and transforming used products into materials that can be reused to make new items. For example, once recycled, old glass bottles can be used to make new gas bottles.

Consumer electronic devices are made of many individual components. But unlike paper, glass and aluminum, consumer electronics cannot typically be recycled curb-side. The recycling of consumer electronics can occur in one of two ways. Some of the items – if they are still in good working order -- can be immediately re-used. If that’s not the case, recycling consists of dismantling the devices and then segregating the various elements of a given product.

Certain elements, when removed, can be re-used. These elements include plastics and glass. Other items, including metals, can be hazardous and professional recycling companies may need to dispose of them in highly specific ways. Such is the case with many of the base materials for consumer electronics, which often contain lead, copper and zinc.

The current state of electronics recycling

Nowadays most states have recycling laws and, as mentioned, many municipalities operate recycling facilities. And retailers have lent a helping hand to the cause.

Consumer electronic chains such as Best Buy, Circuit City and Office Depot typically have recycling kiosks inside their stores or outside the front entrance. Recycling consumer electronics at these locations is usually free and consumers do not need to have purchased the items at a particular retailer to take advantage of the program.

Consumers can receive information about recycling centers from their municipalities, or they can consult Web sites such as http://earth911.com/, which is endorsed by the EPA, to find municipal and other collection sites. Visitors to the site plug in their zip codes and the types of batteries they want to recycle. Retailers also provide guidelines on their Web sites.

For information about recycling at Best Buy, visit the company's website.

Economic and other rewards

As mentioned, many retailers provide comprehensive electronics recycling at their store locations. Best Buy, for example, will recycle just about any type of consumer electronics, including televisions, computer monitors and cell phones, for free.

But on top of that, the electronics chain has also created a fee-based side-business of picking up heavy appliances from customers’ homes. For $100, Best Buy will remove two televisions or two other appliances from a home. The chain will remove additional consumer electronics for recycling at a cost of $20 each unit.

Environmental management companies have sprung up to fill the need for recycling consumer electronics. Many of these companies cater to firms in the pharmaceutical and medical fields that have regulatory obligations. These environmental management companies provide clients with documentation showing that their consumer electronics and other so called “e-waste” items have been responsibly recycled.

To find a recycler that will accept consumer electronics devices, visit the Electronics Recycling Directory.

Consumer electronics often run on rechargeable batteries, and hence the recycling of batteries is also an urgent issue. Many batteries, like the consumer electronic devices they serve, can be recycled at retailers such as Best Buy.

But there are also companies that recycle batteries. For example, Battery Solutions will accept batteries by mail or will arrange pickups for customers. The Big Green Box is another firm that recycles batteries from anywhere. The company mails customers a cardboard box for safe disposal of up to 40 pounds of alkaline, lithium, mercury, zinc and other types of batteries. Consumers then mail the box back to the company. This can be a solution for home offices and small businesses.

Recycling of the future: donating

With today’s advanced state of technological development, many consumers are replacing consumer electronics long before the items stop working. That’s opened up opportunities for charities that want to help bridge the gap between the First World and the Third World.

Organizations such as World Computer Exchange receive used computers and hard drives from individuals, universities and libraries. The computers and other items must be in good working order as they will be used by youth in more than 70 countries who want to learn computing skills.

In addition to helping others, the donations help keep computers out of landfills. The Massachusetts organization has chapters in many major cities in the U.S. and Canada, including Boston, Philadelphia, Washington D.C., and Toronto. Some chapters can even arrange pick-up at your home. If there isn’t a chapter near you, the organization accepts computers through the mail.

For more information on donating electronics, visit Digitaltips.org.

For more information on World Computer Exchange, visit the organization's website.

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