Recycle your tech gear: It's easier than you think

By Barbara Krasnoff, Computerworld |  Green IT, Earth Day, environment

Downturn or no downturn, it's nice to upgrade your tech gadgets now and again, especially when they are so old that your colleagues are looking at you sideways. But once you've bought -- or been given -- that great new digital camera, or smartphone, or laptop, what do you do with the old one?

You know you shouldn't just throw it in the garbage -- the environmental hazards of simply discarding electronics have been well documented. But many of us haven't the vaguest idea how to dispose of the stuff safely.

The result? Piles of old tech gear gathering dust in basements and garages until somebody in the household just gives up and drags it all to the local dump.

Back in December 2007, Preston Gralla's "Out with the old: What to do with your unwanted tech gear" detailed various ways to sell, donate and recycle gadgets and computing equipment, including several online services. Since he wrote that piece, even more options have become available for tech owners who want to get rid of their older devices in a convenient, environmentally friendly and, if possible, financially advantageous way.

As we all know, however, the life span of a lot of Web services can be fleeting -- and a lot of new ones have appeared in the last year. So, in honor of Earth Day, here's an update on what you can do with your old computers, displays, digital cameras, mobile phones, game consoles and other tech devices.

Recycle it online for money or for free
These days, one of the simplest ways to get rid of your old electronic gear is to find a company that will buy it back -- or, if your device is too old or unpopular to be resold, that will recycle it for you.

It's simple: You either find your device -- or the category your device belongs to -- in the site's database. You fill out a form describing the item's condition and how much of the original product is missing. (Do you still have the power cord? The CD with the driver? The manual?) Based on that, you get an estimate on how much the site will pay for the device (if anything). You send it in; the site's staff looks it over and, if necessary, adjusts the payment amount or declines to pay for it. (For that reason, it's wise to check the site's return policy before you send your device.)

You get a check, a gift card for a popular retail outlet or payment to a charity; the site either resells the device or sends it off to be broken down and recycled.

There are now several sites that offer these services; which site you choose will depend on what types of products they accept, what types of payment they make and how easy it is to send them your devices (most provide prepaid labels, and at least one actually sends you a box).

To try these out, I gathered a small number of my own gadgets as test products: an HP Photosmart 812 digital camera, which went on sale in 2002; a Panasonic Lumix DMC-TZ5 digital camera, a more recent device that went on the market in the spring of 2008; and an Asus Eee PC 4G, the original Eee PC netbook, which first shipped in November 2007.

Gazelle
Gazelle (formerly known as Second Rotation) calls itself "the nation's largest reCommerce company" and certainly has an impressively well-organized and easy-to-navigate site. It accepts a wide range of devices, including digital cameras, external drives, camcorders, laptops, LCDs and satellite radios, among others.

It offered me $106 for my Panasonic Lumix camera but nothing for the legacy HP camera. There was no specific listing for my Asus Eee PC netbook, but after entering some specs I was offered $68.

Payment is via PayPal, check or Amazon gift card. It pays for shipping -- in many cases, it even sends you a box -- and you can donate your proceeds directly to charity if you want.

NextWorth
NextWorth's motto is "Turn your unused into opportunity." It allows you to trade in your iPods, iPhones, video games, game consoles, cameras, BlackBerries and GPS devices for store credit at retail outlets such as Target, Amazon or J&R. You can either walk into the store and drop off your item, or mail it in and get the check or gift card mailed to you.

The list of products that NextWorth actually pays for, though, seemed somewhat limited. For example, neither HP nor Panasonic was in NextWorth's database of digital camera vendors during my testing. If it doesn't have your device model listed, NextWorth does offer to give you a personalized quote and either give you cash back or (if it isn't worth purchasing) recycle your item for free.

My BoneYard
My BoneYard helps consumers recycle music players, laptops, cell phones, desktop systems and flat-panel monitors. It not only recycles, but says that it will wipe your hard drives of all data if you don't want to do it yourself. (There are a number of ways, however, you can safely wipe your data from computers and phones yourself.)

Be aware that this site is for someone who knows at least a minimum of tech; to assess your laptop, for example, it doesn't ask for specifics on the model, but on the type and speed of your processor. Because my Asus wasn't included in its list of vendors, I was told to send in the details and the company would appraise the item.

My BoneYard provides prepaid labels.

BuyMyTronics
I was immediately struck by the skull-and-crossbones that BuyMyTronics exhibits on its home page. The company takes game consoles, cell phones/PDAs, and iPods/iPhones. (Other products, such as digital cameras and camcorders, are listed, but when I clicked on the categories, I got a "Coming Soon" notice -- which meant I couldn't test the service with my gear.)

If your device qualifies for a payback, you get the option to donate the price to one of several charities. BuyMyTronics subtracts the shipping costs from your payback; if you don't rate a payback, you can send your product to BuyMyTronics to recycle, but you have to pay the shipping costs.

EcoNew
Like NextWorth, EcoNew offers a retail gift card in return for your device; you can choose from Sam's Club, Office Depot or Nex Navy Exchange. Interestingly, you start not by choosing which device you want to get rid of, but which vendor you want to deal with. I selected Office Depot, which takes trade-ins on notebook and desktop PCs, media players, LCDs, game consoles, camcorders, digital cameras and smartphones. I was offered $18 for my HP Photosmart 812; my Panasonic Lumix was valued at $23. Free shipping was included.

You can also recycle CRTs, printers and fax machines by buying a box from Office Depot (prices range from $5 to $15, depending on the size of the box) and bringing your device to one of its stores.)

Consumer Electronics Recycling
This service accepts consumer items shipped to it for recycling. It also offers to purchase PDAs, smartphones, cell phones and iPods, depending on the model, but the list of those it will price is very limited (for example, the list of manufacturers for cell phones had only four names on it). You have to pay the postage.

The site didn't list either my ancient HP camera or my Panasonic Lumix (although it did list the model that the Lumix TZ5 superseded). My Asus Eee PC 4G, however, was valued at $93.84 in excellent condition; minor scratches brought the price down to $70.38. If you use Radio Shack's service, you get a prepaid shipping label.

TechForward
This is a plan for people who think ahead. Purchase the Guaranteed Buyback plan at the same time you buy new equipment, and when you're ready to upgrade, TechForward will buy back your device in good condition (meaning fully functional and accompanied by "all original software installation disks, manuals, peripheral devices and all other accessories that originally shipped with the device").

How much you get back depends on how long you've owned it. For example, you get up to 50% of the original price for a device that's six months old and up to 20% for up to 24 months after purchase. A policy for my Panasonic digital camera (assuming I had just bought it) cost $19.99.

Recycle it locally
While online recyclers try to make it as easy as possible to recycle your electronic gear, sometimes it's just as easy to load the stuff into your car and haul it over to your local recycler.

EPA's eCycling
There are a number of Web sites that offer guidance as to where you can find local e-waste recyclers, including e-Recycle.org (which is most useful if you live in California) and Earth911.com, which includes a comprehensive database of resources. However, the granddaddy of them all is the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Web site, which offers lists of helpful organizations, regulations on handling electronic equipment and lots of other interesting information.

e-Stewards
There have been some news stories over the past few years showing that many so-called recycling companies actually ship their waste to other countries, where the components are dismantled under dangerous conditions. A group called e-Stewards offers a list of local e-waste recyclers that have pledged to follow rigorous recycling practices.

GreenDisk
If you don't have a local recycling option, GreenDisk will recycle your computer-related waste, including components, printer cartridges and rechargeable batteries. You have two options: You choose its Pack_IT service, where you pay for processing, recycling and shipping -- the base price is $6.95 for up to 20 lb. if you're supplying your own box -- or you can order a Technotrash Can, which holds up to 70 lb. of tech items for $49.95 (which includes postage).

Person to person: Sell it or give it away
Sometimes, the best way to get rid of something is to simply find somebody else who wants it. There are several sites that enable buyers and sellers to connect.

eBay
Need I say more? eBay is still here and going strong. It's the place everybody thinks of first when they're trying to get rid of an unwanted, outdated belonging. You can either sell your device as part of an auction and wait for the bids to roll in, or add a "Buy It Now" option if you don't want to wait.

The process can be a bit forbidding for newbies; eBay offers all sorts of tutorials on how to determine price, what to post, etc. And it's not free; currently, you pay an insertion fee of up to $4, depending on the value of your item, plus a percentage of the final price depending on a variety of factors. But if you're an eBay pro, or willing to dive into the deep end, this could be a good way to go.

(Incidentally, one resource for researching places to go to get rid of unwanted tech is eBay's Rethink Initiative page, which is part of a group effort by a number of organizations to deal with e-waste. There are a number of links on the site for selling and recycling services, although some of the listings simply help you through the process of listing it on eBay.

Craigslist
For a simpler method of selling your stuff, you can always try Craigslist, which is about as close to a local classified ad site as you can get. It's free and simple to post (you can include an image), although your listing can quickly scroll down and out of sight, depending on where you post it. All postings expire in seven days.

Freecycle
If your device has no resale value, and you don't want to trash it, you might try to give it away. Freecycle brings together people who have stuff they don't want with people who want stuff they don't have. You sign up for a Freecycle Yahoo group in your area, advertise your device (or any other item) and wait to see if anyone else wants it. (I've gotten rid of several items that way -- when it works, it works well.)

Give it to charity
Most of us think of charitable donations when we have working electronic gear that we want to unload. However, these days it's difficult to find a charity that will accept legacy hardware.

Goodwill
Whether or not you can donate your computer to Goodwill depends on your local office. Preston's article mentioned that, if a computer wasn't suitable for re-use, it could be recycled at great cost to Goodwill; but the cost of recycling these days is more than Goodwill wants to deal with, according to the site.

National Christina Foundation
The National Christina Foundation has been around since the early 1980s (I've seen their tables at almost every trade show I've ever attended) and provides computers to people with disabilities, students at risk and economically disadvantaged persons. It accepts desktops (Pentium III or higher), notebooks, printers, peripherals and software; a donation form is on the site, or if you have a large number of items, you can upload an inventory.

Call to Protect
Donated phones are either refurbished or recycled; the proceeds go toward combating domestic violence. Prepaid labels are provided online.

Recycle For Breast Cancer
This organization recycles a variety of devices, including mobile phones, printer cartridges, PDAs, digital cameras, media players, laptops and desktops, and routers/hubs/switches. It offers free prepaid shipping labels, envelopes and collection boxes; all proceeds go to the cost of the recycling and to support efforts against breast cancer.

Have the vendor recycle it
It's possible that your vendor can help you in your recycling efforts. Many vendors, prompted either by social responsibility or the desire to avoid bad publicity, are providing services that enable their customers to recycle old equipment.

Some computer manufacturers, such as Apple, will recycle any brand of computer and monitor when you buy a new system from that company. Dell does the same but also recycles any of its name-brand products for free, whether you buy a new system or not. HP has a buy-back program and free recycling for its own products but charges a fee to recycle other brands.

Since each vendor's options are different, it's important to read the fine print at each recycling site.

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