By
msnbc.com contributor
updated 4/22/2008 9:23:45 AM ET 2008-04-22T13:23:45

Erik Hodne's Denver basement contains two computers, two printers, a stereo receiver, two VCRs, six cell phones, three cordless phones and two Palm Pilots.

Hodne is not a collector, and the machines carry no sentimental value. But like most Americans, Erik can't figure out what to do with his old tech trash. The 36-year-old surgical tools salesman considered selling some of the items, but he hasn't had time to figure out how much they're worth or how to erase the machines of any personal information.

"I feel guilty throwing them in the trash," said Hodne. "I have got this big 36-inch TV. It's huge. What am I going to do with this thing? Chances are it will go the basement until one day I can figure out what to do with all this stuff."

Millions of Americans are equally perplexed when it comes to disposing of old technology. Between 1980 and 2005, 180 million electronic products accumulated in storage, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. And in 2005, Americans tossed an estimated 1.5 million tons of computers, TVs, scanners, printers, faxing machines and cell phones into the trash.

The piles of e-waste will undoubtedly grow in coming months, as the switch to digital television looms. Starting in February 2009, broadcasters will no longer use analog signals, which means an analog TV that works fine today will be rendered useless without a digital converter box or a subscription to cable or satellite service.

The government has issued discount coupons for people to buy digital converter boxes from electronic retailers, and set up a Web site to answer questions about the digital TV switch, recycling and buying energy-efficient TVs.

So what do you do with your unwanted technology?

Avoid throwing old gadgets in the trash, because their inner workings can contain toxic materials including lead, beryllium, cadmium and flame retardants. If crushed or burned these materials can seep into the environment and harm human health. Many states prohibit dumping electronic equipment in the trash, although the EPA maintains that most U.S. landfills include proper liners and groundwater testing to prevent leaching.

The EPA has created a Web site to help you determine whether you should recycle or donate your e-waste. You can also find links and resources for recycling, donating or reselling your equipment at eBay’s Rethink Program. The eBay site also offers tools to erase data on computers and cell phone.

Reselling
If you’re considering reselling your equipment, you can go to Rethink to get started or research prices on eBay or on classified ad sites like craigslist. For $75 and up, you can look up market prices for digital cameras, car stereos, computers and televisions at Orion Blue Book.

CellForCash.com will buy certain models of cell phones, refurbish them and resell them as warrantee phones, pre-paid phones or emergency 911 phones provided to the elderly and victims of domestic abuse. If your phone isn't one the business will buy, you can get a free shipping label, put your phone in box and mail it to CellForCash.com for recycling. Greenphone.com cuts checks and offers you points good toward gift certificates at retailers such as CircuitCity.com and Starbucks.

Donating
You can donate your technology to a number of organizations, including the National Cristina Foundation. You can go to its website, enter information about your old computer, laptop, fax machines, PDAs, digital cameras and other peripherals, and Cristina Foundation will search its database and connect you with local nonprofits and schools that need machines. Last year, the organization found homes for 50,000 pieces of old equipment. Through eBay Giving Works, you can sell an item on eBay and donate part or all of the final sale price to the nonprofit of your choice.

Before you sell or donate your equipment, you should clear the devices of any personal information. You can find tools online for erasing your cell phone or PDA's memory and to clear your computer hard drive. A number of companies offer software to wipe computer memory, including Blannco Data Cleaner, , WipeDrive and  CyberCide Data Destruction. People can find more on wiping their hard drive on the EPA's website.

Recycling
Recycling can save energy and valuable resources, including the mining of precious metals and the manufacturing new plastics. Yet most people do not know where to take their equipment. There are more options than you might realize.

You can go to the EPA site for a list of manufacturers and technology companies that offer recycling and links to their programs.

Waste Management, the $13 billion garbage collection company, is planning to expand aggressively into recycling electronics. The company joined Sony last year to open 75 recycling drop-off sites, and the two companies ultimately plan to open 1,000 locations within 20 miles of 95 percent of the population.

“We see it as a huge opportunity in the next three to five years and beyond,” said Waste Management’s Richard Abramowitz. The drop-off centers will recycle Sony products at no cost to consumers. The sites will charge $5 to $50, depending on the market area and size of the equipment, to recycle other brands. To find the nearest drop-off center, you can call 877-439-2795.

Staples recycles laptops, printers, monitors, computers and fax machines at its 1,400 stores for $10 each. The retailer also accepts peripherals like computer mice, keyboards, cell phones, PDAs and rechargeable batteries for free.

Dell Inc. also offers free recycling of Dell branded products with no purchase required and will recycle other branded products with the purchase of a new Dell computer. You can check out their options at Dell's recycling Web site.

You can drop off your old cell phones off at AT&T stores and cell phones, rechargeable batteries and ink cartridges at Best Buy stores. Motorola’s recycling program lets you print prepaid shipping labels online and send in any brand cell phone to be recycled. Participating K-12 schools can earn money for each phone returned. The Collective Good will also collect and recycle your old cell phone.

Choose carefully
Be cautious when choosing a recycler, because many recyclers ship high-tech trash to Third-World countries to take advantage of lax regulations, according to the Basel Action Network, an environmental nonprofit organization. Best Buy, Motorola, Dell, Staples, Sony and Waste Management say equipment collected does not get shipped overseas.

Jim Puckett, director of the Basel Action Network, said many U.S. recyclers make money by collecting recycling fees and then selling the waste to brokers who ship it overseas. In China, Puckett and investigators watched workers paid $1 a day pull apart equipment by hand or hammer. They burned wires or cooked circuit boards to pull off resellable chips, then dipped  those chips in acid and poured the leftover residues straight into the rivers, says Puckett.

Such methods expose workers to contaminants such as lead and cadmium, a known carcinogen. Recyclers also ship computers to Africa, where local entrepreneurs pay for second-hand machines. The vast majority of computers shipped cannot be recycled, repaired or sold and are dumped and burned, harming the environment and human health. When the plastics are burned it creates even more toxic substances such as dioxins and cancer-causing hydrocarbons, said Puckett.

“It’s a lot easier to shunt it off to Third-World countries,” Puckett said. “You really have to watch out when there is a free take-back event. Most are funneling everything offshore.”

The Basel Action Network provides a list of recyclers that have promised not to dump material overseas. These recyclers have agreed to let the group monitor their recycling practices and vendors.

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