Terminating Our Used Electronics

By Joshua Singer

Anyone who has seen “The Terminator” can appreciate the importance of recycling electronics.

In the original film, Arnold Schwarzenegger plays a cyborg sent back in time to kill the mother of the leader of humanity in the war against robots. The sequel also features the ex-governator, but as a robot reprogrammed to save the teenaged savior-to-be. In both films, Arnold plays a lethal, flesh-covered machine uncannily well.

The movies provide an action-packed demonstration of why the phrase “end of life” is appropriately associated with safe electronics disposal (I won’t elaborate to avoid spoiling the plot). Rather than throwing away discarded computers, TVs or cell phones, valuable materials can be recycled from them and used to make new products, which helps to protect people and the environment.

You don’t need to see “The Terminator” to understand reasons for recycling electronics. Recycling reduces the amount of raw materials extracted from the earth, saves the energy needed to make new products and reduces landfill waste and greenhouse gas emissions. Discarded electronics contain toxins that can leach into the environment if improperly managed. Illegal dumping, for example, can release lead and mercury.

As we grow more dependent on machines, this issue will grow in importance. Americans discarded approximately 2.4 million tons of TVs, computers, cell phones and other electronics in 2010, roughly 25 percent of which was recycled.

More “end-of-life” electronics should be recycled. And some products that people can’t or don’t want to use anymore are in good enough shape to be refurbished or resold. Electronics recycling is also required in some cases. For example, Illinois will ban additional electronics, such as TVs and computers, from landfill disposal beginning Jan. 1, 2012.

You may be able to unload old electronics at a thrift store (if they still work), a retailer or manufacturer that accepts them, local government drop-off site or a recycling facility. R2 and e-Stewards® third-party certification programs can help ensure recycling companies handle materials properly.

While not quite as dramatic as a war against robots, we need to combat problems resulting from greater use of electronics. Recycling more electronics is a battle we can win, with or without the Terminator.

About the author: Joshua Singer is a press officer in EPA’s Chicago Office.  He works on Superfund, land and chemical issues.

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