E-waste is the fastest-growing waste stream globally that is damaging the environment in many ways. Learn every aspect of electronics recycling in this guide.
You only need to take a quick look at an image of one of the thousands of landfill sites around the country to get even a small appreciation of how out of control our waste problem is.
And despite lots of efforts to educate people about the importance of electronic waste recycling, only about 12.5% of computers, cell phones, monitors, TVs, and everything else in our homes ends up in the cycle economy.
To help educate you and those around you, we’ve pulled together this complete guide to electronics recycling. I’ll cover the why, what, where, and how of electronics recycling to really drill this issue home.
Let’s start with some definitions.
To start off on the right foot, I’ve broken this section down to define e-waste and recycling.
E-waste is any electrical or electronic equipment used in homes and businesses that has been discarded. The surprising thing is that a lot of e-waste is made up of working electronics that no longer have value to the owner.
It can be anything from cell phones to computer monitors and old fax machines to vacuum cleaners.
Some end up becoming waste because of outdated technology. Other things might require upgrading to save energy. As long as there are wires and some form of battery or socket power required to run the devices, they fall under the e-waste category.
Look around your home and do a quick count of anything electronic to get a picture of how much electronics a typical home has.
E-waste recycling means handing over old electronics so that they can be broken down into individual materials. There will be some amount of plastic and rubber, but also plenty of metals and even toxic chemicals.
The valuable stuff is typically the gold, silver, and copper that adds up as you process tons of electronics.
The more complex part of responsible recycling is dealing with heavy metals and toxins. Those are difficult to extract and costly to safely dispose of.
There are four critical reasons why you should do your best to recycle electronic waste.
Everything from cell phones to toner cartridges and TVs to a kitchen food processor contain countless electronic components. And while it might seem like those are all just plastic, silicon, and a bit of copper wiring, there are plenty of toxic chemicals and metals as well.
The most common materials are lead, mercury, and cadmium. And considering the large volume of these devices that end up in the trash, it shouldn’t require too much of a stretch of the imagination to see what happens at landfills.
The more of these chemical materials that build up, the higher the risk of them leaking into groundwater supplies and even turning into airborne toxins.
At this stage, there are 19 states with laws that technically make it illegal to throw electronics in the trash.
19 U.S. States Where E-Waste Dumping Is Illegal
These states have also encouraged more recycling services to be set up in order to handle the tons of functioning and broken electronics that consumers are discarding every year.
Unfortunately, given the low percentage of e-waste recycling in the U.S., there are still significant gaps between introducing and enforcing legislation.
This is probably one of the most important factors to keep in mind when it comes to electronic devices. The electronics industry requires millions of pounds of different metals every year. And it’s mining companies throughout the world that use massive amounts of energy to completely destroy vast areas of nature.
But at this stage, there is so much e-waste out there that it could provide electronics businesses with the majority of their resources needed.
If all broken electronics went to a recycling center, then there would be far less demand for natural resources, which would hugely impact greenhouse gas emissions and direct destruction of nature.
And then, there is the effect of e-waste disposal, where countries all over the world are simply exporting broken and working electronics to be “recycled” in third-world countries.
This is something that many recycling businesses have done, and in many cases, it’s a compliance issue that states are simply not looking into enough.
Imagine old computers, televisions, and laptops piling up on container ships to go to poor countries in Africa. The processes for “recycling” in these places involve stripping out anything that contains metal and then burning away the plastics.
They then use toxic chemicals to separate the materials, and the rest is simply dumped at a landfill.
The result is a vast destruction of the environment, and from Western society's point of view, people believe they have done the right thing.
I mentioned above that e-waste recycling is possible for anything that has a cable, battery, and/or electronic circuitry inside. But when it comes to recycling electronics, you have to understand that there are devices that are free and those that cost money to have recycled.
I’ll get to the most effective ways to recycle an old electronic device in the next section. But even those items that are listed below, possibly incurring a fee to have them recycled, might be accepted for free at certain stores and through manufacturers’ programs.
More on that shortly.
This is by far not an extensive list of every possible electronic device, but based on GreenCitizen’s experience, these are some of the most common items.
More on our recycling program shortly.
Here are five ways to make sure you stick with responsible recycling methods.
By far, the safest and most responsible way to go about e-waste recycling is to bring your old electronic waste to a certified recycling center.
But there are a few things that you have to keep in mind when it comes to choosing a reputable recycling facility.
I mentioned above that there have been many reports of recycling companies collecting tons of e-waste and then exporting it to poor countries around the world.
Those are not acceptable practices, and if you check for official certifications and compliance records, then you can be much more confident that all the hazardous materials will end up safely disposed of.
You also have to keep in mind that many of your electronics contain personal and sensitive data. This data can range from login details for streaming providers on your smart TV to all your personal and financial details on phones, computers, and laptops.
If you're going to dispose of such a device, and you can’t safely erase all the data on them, then make sure that the recycling provider offers a service to do this for you.
Even in the world of recycled electronics, there is a constant change in the technologies used to offer better services and recycling processes. Aim to pick a company in your city that has a proven track record of dealing with as many different types of electronic equipment.
There has been a significant change at corporate levels with the majority of the electronics manufacturers around the world. This is partially due to regulatory pressure but also demand from consumers for greener products and recycling electronics.
Whether you have a few old Samsung cell phones, some HP toner cartridges, or LG televisions, there are some great options now for free electronic waste recycling.
Some offer a free mail-in service, while others have designated drop-off locations. So if you got some old devices, then check if the company offers services to recycle all materials properly.
Here’s a list of some of the main electronics company recycling services:
It’s important to understand that each company has taken a slightly different approach, with some of them partnering with recycling collection and processing specialists. But this list should also be a driver for any future purchases that you might plan.
Just make sure that you remove any personal data before you hand over your old devices, as not all manufacturers guarantee safe data destruction services.
I remember the days when electronics stores barely had a battery recycling point where you could bring your old single-use batteries.
But things have changed a lot for the better.
One of the things I always recommend that people do is consider dropping off their old and broken electronic devices when they head to a store to buy a new one.
For example, if your TV had an encounter with a flying games controller, then bring that damaged TV to the store so that you save yourself a trip.
Many electronics stores, especially the large retailers, will offer free recycling for any items you bought there or in exchange when you buy something new.
Here are some links for you to check which stores in your city might have an electronics waste drop off point:
What you have to be careful about, though, is any data still on devices. This isn't just the case for computers, laptops, and cellphones, but also for smart TVs and WiFi routers that could store login details for your Internet, streaming services, and many other financially and personally sensitive data.
So, find an erase function before you hand your old devices in.
Many city and municipal waste facilities have seen some major upgrades in recent years. And even those that don’t directly process e-waste and electronic equipment onsite will often offer services to accept anything from old computers to TVs and games consoles.
What I suggest you do is contact your local waste facility and ask if there are restrictions or costs for certain electronic devices first. That might save you a trip if they don’t accept all types of equipment.
And as with all the recommendations above, make sure you erase any data left on the device. It’s one of the easiest ways for social hackers to get hold of some personal data about you.
This is something many people completely forget to consider when they replace old but working electronics. It seems like the worst problem is cell phones, where people seem to upgrade every year, just to have the latest gadget.
These are ideal electronics to donate so that someone in need might be able to reuse them and be perfectly happy with last years’ model.
But the same is the case for those DVD players that are gathering dust because most of us have switched to streaming movies. There are plenty of people who would be more than happy to still watch DVDs.
Here are a few tips to use for donating any old electronics you want to get rid of.
There are small and large charities in locations all over the USA, and you’ll find some of the larger ones below. But even a quick look on Craigslist or Yelp should give you some smaller local charities that might be more than happy to take your old electronics.
Simply contact them and ask if they would take your old computer or TV. Some might even offer a collection service which is great if you have a few larger pieces of equipment.
Here are the main services for donating working electronic equipment:
For smaller items like phones or tablets, it’s probably best to just drop them off the next time you’re in the area of one of these services. But if you have a large TV and maybe even an old kitchen appliance, then some places offer a collection service for free.
I don’t know how many times I’ve said this, but don't forget to completely erase any data from your old electronic equipment. We store practically every last thing about our personal and financial life on these devices.
And when something is going to be used by someone else, then you don't want them to have access to your photo library and credit card details.
Here at GreenCitizen, we have a dedicated team that handles e-waste recycling for many types of electronic and electrical equipment.
With a heavy focus on consumer electronics like cellphones, laptops, computers, tablets, and monitors, we offer a range of services to individuals and businesses who want to do the right thing for the environment when it comes to recycling electronics.
If you live in the San Francisco Bay Area, then you can simply visit our GreenCitizen EcoCenter in Burlingame.
Our address is — 1831 Bayshore HWY, Suite 2, Burlingame, CA 94010 USA. You can simply call us at (650) 493 8700. Our team will help you throughout the process.
To ensure protection against the COVID-19, we've divided the drop-off service into two phases—
We have made our electronics recycling process as simple as possible, and you can prepare everything before you arrive. You simply separate your fee and free electronic waste and fill out a short form with details about the equipment.
Once you arrive at our recycling center, our team will unload your items in a cart. Then, we'll weigh your "fee" items to let you know the recycling cost.
Finally, pay the due amount using your credit or debit card, we have contact-less chip readers to ensure maximum protection.
Good to Know: If you recycle any computer released after 2015 at our Burlingame EcoCenter, you'll get a free data destruction service with certificate on top of our free recycling service.
Of course, business run on a tight schedule and find it hard to come and drop-off their old or broken electronics at our EcoCenter. That's why we offer pickup services to all businesses in the San Francisco Bay Area.
Just like our Drop-off services, you'll get Free Data Destruction and Free Recycling services for all of working computers, laptops, and Cisco Enterprise Networking Equipment (2015 or newer).
Also, you'll get Free Recycling for all working or non-working computers, laptops, tablets, cellphones, networking equipment, and monitors.
Here's how it works —
We then take care of the collection, including offering full data destruction services as well. It makes your life a lot easier, and we send you one invoice for the service.
What about IT Asset Disposition?
Are you moving out, upgrading your IT infrastructure, or downsizing your current business? GreenCitizen can help you offset your deployment costs if you choose to liquidate your obsolete or unwanted IT assets with our leading IT Asset Disposition (ITAD) services.
GreenCitizen also offers an electronics recycling mail-in service. This is especially convenient for anyone who might not have a suitable or trustworthy recycling center near their home.
No matter where in the U.S. you’re based, you simply identify the fee and free recycling equipment and weigh it. Once you fill out the recycling form we’ll quote you with a price, and provide you with the shipping details.
You can then arrange for the devices to be sent to us, and we’ll take care of the recycling and optional data destruction as well.
The final option you can look at is to use our Green Directory to find responsible recycling companies near you. Simply search for the item you want to recycle. Then, enter your address or your ZIP code.
Our system will show you the list of the nearest recycling centers
One of the benefits of doing this is that you’ll find reputable places where you’ll have the confidence that the materials go through the right processes and won't end up in a landfill or destroying the environment in a third-world country.
Many people ask why they have to pay for electronics recycling. And the answer to that involves looking at two things.
The problem is that not many electronic devices contain valuable enough natural resources. Yes, phones, laptops, and computers contain some gold, silver, and copper that offset the cost of physically processing them. Essentially, they may have a net positive dollar value.
But there are countless other devices that contain harmful and toxic materials that make electronics recycling very expensive.
The process to extract and safely dispose of many chemicals is expensive, and in many cases, that expense is not offset by any valuable metals that the electronics contain.
So, it ends up costing a recycling company like GreenCitizen money to do the right thing.
The other problem is that those costs of recycling are often not included in the price when you buy it. Countries like Ireland have introduced legislation that requires a certain fee to be added to every electronic and electrical device.
The advantage is that when you’re done with the device or it breaks down, you can drop it off at many locations to be recycled for free.
But the bottom line for anyone looking into recycling options should be doing the right thing for the environment, even if that means paying for a service.
You can get rid of used electronics by contacting the manufacturer or the store you bought them from. Many companies offer a free recycling drop-off point, and every major city usually has these options.
Best Buy accepts products for electronics recycling when you return something you bought there or when buying something new. They don’t process the electronics themselves but use reputable services to handle the waste.
You can recycle used electronics at major electronics stores, manufacturers' drop-off points, municipal waste facilities, and electronics recycling businesses. Every major city should provide enough options.
Yes, Goodwill may accept TVs as long as they are modern flat screen types and working. Older CRT ones end up costing them money if they can’t find a home for them.
If you have any old TVs that still work, then the best thing to do is give them away to someone you know or donate it. As long as it's a flat-screen TV, you’ll find that it’s easy enough to make sure that it finds a home.
No, you shouldn’t put an electronic device in the recycle bin. Electronics require special techniques and processes that wouldn’t be available at regular recyclable household trash processing facilities.
It’s hard to recycle electronics because many of them contain toxic materials. While a typical electronic device has some precious and base metals, it likely also has things like mercury and cadmium.
The number one thing you should have learned is that there are legal and environmental reasons not to throw electronics in the trash.
In many cases, doing the right thing won't even cost you anything, as there are several options to return broken electronics to stores and manufacturers.
And then there’s always GreenCitizen’s recycling service, which is the best option for anyone living in the San Francisco Bay Area.
If you need more information on anything electronics recycling-related, then ask your questions below in the comments.