If you’re thinking about getting rid of old desktop computer towers, televisions or peripherals, you’ll want to take a look at new policy efforts that are supposed to control where all of this obsolete stuff goes when we’re done using it.

User communities all over the world have a common problem: too many computers and other electronic devices get thrown into the trash or dumped near local waterways or groundwater.
One factor is the rapid adoption of device-based technologies like laptop computers and tablets, along with a whole chronology of bigger and better smartphones. Because so many new models come out on a regular basis, and so many of us want the newest and best thing, there are an awful lot of old computers and other devices filling up space in the average attic, basement or storage room, not to mention in empty offices and other business storage spaces.

And because convenience is also part of the equation, many of these items have traditionally ended up going out with the regular garbage. Now, states and localities are putting new laws in place to make sure that people take advantage of official repositories for computers, TVs and other kinds of gear that have become junk.

Issues With Dumping Covered Devices

Part of the problem with throwing away old electronics has to do with world markets. This November 18 post on Yale’s Environment 360 blog details how rare earth metals like platinum and lithium, as well as other more obscure elements like terbium and europium, have experienced big price increases because of broad global demand. This piece also covers the difficulty of extracting some of these rare metals from the growing amount of disposal material often called "e-waste."

But another issue around this kind of dumping involves public health and safety. As shown in this Connecticut guide from the state’s Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, heavy metals like beryllium, mercury and cadmium can leach from devices into groundwater, or become dispersed into the air through burning. Detailed research on these kinds of dangers has driven a lot of public policy on more stringent e-waste disposal requirements, although articles like this one from Yes magazine point out that in comparison to existing EU policies, the American response to these issues has been relatively late, and rather piecemeal.

State Laws on Electronics Recycling

As part of a greater effort to improve the disposal of obsolete electronics, states are working to change the models for how residents use municipal trash services.

In Pennsylvania, officials passed a law called the Covered Devices Recycling Act (CDRA), which went into effect January 24, 2013. This law effectively prohibits households and businesses from putting a range of electronic items out with their regular trash. It also prohibits trash haulers from picking them up. But there are also a range of mandates for electronics makers and sellers aimed at making it easier for these types of items to get recycled, and harder for them to get thrown out along with other kinds of trash.

This Electronics Recycling Coordination Clearinghouse guide shows that 25 states have created similar laws in order to deal with the influx of electronics into municipal waste streams.

E-Waste Recycling on a Local Level

In many ways, these state laws are having a "trickle-down effect" and influencing the practicality of e-waste recycling.

Lancaster County is a county of over 500,000 residents in southeastern Pennsylvania. Many of the county’s individual municipalities, townships and boroughs, cite state Department of Environment Protection rules and the Pennsylvania CDRA law in governing e-waste strategy.

The Lancaster County Solid Waste Management Authority (LCSWMA) is a government waste agency whose mission is to manage the municipal solid waste and recyclable materials from county residents, including e-waste and other household hazardous waste materials.

Kathryn Sandoe, the LCSWMA’s communications manager, said LCSWMA has seen a dramatic increase (66.5%) in e-waste recycling in 2013 over the previous year. "We have seen quite a lot of activity around this kind of recycling," she said.

Part of the buzz, Sandoe says, was around the promotion of the LCSWMA’s Household Hazardous Waste (HHW) Facility when the Covered Devices Recycling Act came into effect. At the HHW Facility, local residents can drop off not only e-waste items, but also other special kinds of waste such as batteries, paint and motor oil.

Finding Local Solutions Where You Live

Some places, like Lancaster County, have these kinds of specialized resources; others may not. Wherever you are in the country, you can use a website called Earth911.com to check on available e-waste drop-off points near you.

One thing site searchers will see is that in addition to local municipal efforts, many retailers are also operating their own recycling centers in communities nationwide, partly as a response to new laws.

The Future of E-Waste Control

When you look at a lot of the new laws that have been created, you might think that there’s one big piece missing. Pennsylvania’s new law, and many others like it, don’t include cell phones as covered devices.

While mobile phones aren’t regulated the same way that bigger, older devices are, they are definitely considered e-waste. An iPhone or Blackberry, or even an old Motorola Razr might not have cathode ray tubes, but they do have rare earth metals and chemical elements built in.

So, while it’s great that new laws are improving regulated disposal, we’ll probably see more rules in the future to mitigate the disposal of the smartphone, which is becoming, in many key ways, the new personal computer.

Still, the emergence of national, state and local strategies for electronics recycling is giving us better choices for how we handle our gadgets when we no longer want them. (Disposing of e-waste can present huge security problems for companies. Read more in The Data Security Gap Many Companies Overlook.)