Ecocentric

Holiday Waste: How Not to Throw Out Your Old Electronics

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‘Tis the season to keep propping up the consumer electronics industry and swap out your old phones and tablets and computers in favor of slightly better, slightly more expensive new versions. Whether it’s an iPad 2 replacing an iPad, an iPhone 4s replacing an iPhone 4, or whether you just received an Kindle Fire tablet and simply hate it, chances are you have some outdated electronics on your hands. And you’re not alone: in a new report from the analysts at Pike Research found that the amount of end-of-life electronics—better known as e-waste—around the globe will grow from 6 million tons in 2010 to nearly 15 million tons by 2025. That’s a lot of obsolete—or just old—gadgets.

And we can’t simply toss those phones and electronics into the trash—or at least we shouldn’t. The lead, mercury and other toxic materials in electronics can leak from landfills, threatening groundwater supplies. But you can’t throw them in the recycling bin either—few municipal waste firms can recycle electronics. So what should you do then?

MORE: E-Waste Not

1) Re-gift them: If you’re a younger child, you’ve experienced this for yourself: the hand-me-down wardrobe. (Sorry, Sean.) It goes against our constant itch for the new, but there’s no reason why you couldn’t hand that iPhone 3S off to another member of your extended family or friend network. Not everyone needs Siri (and let’s face it—she’s sort of the worst). Our consumer electronics may be designed for obsolescence, but that doesn’t mean you need to follow the plan. And if you can’t find anyone you know to take your old gadgets…

2) Donate them: Ever heard of the digital gap? Do your part in closing it by donating your gadgets and computers to charity—after you’ve wiped your data from the device. (In fact, that’s probably a good idea if you’re regifting a computer to a relative, unless you want your 8-year-old cousin to have easy access to your web surfing record.) As the Los Angeles Times reports, one of the best places to find worthy recipients is EBay’s Rethink Initiative, which includes a list of organizations that can make use of your leftover electronics. Among them is Cell Phones for Soldiers, which provides gently used phones for deployed and returning troops. I’ll be sending the group my two-year-old iPhone 3S.

MORE: The E-Waste Blight Grows More Dangerous Than Ever

3) Be capitalistic: Of course, maybe you’d like to cash in your old gadgets for actual cash, as opposed to karma. You can sell your old phones and computers on any auction or classified site, but if that’s too much work, you can use a digital middleman like NextWorth.com. The company will quote a price, and you can either send the gadget directly to them, or trade it in at a Target superstore—a useful option if you’re dealing with a large desktop or similar-sized device. You can also try Gazelle, where I see that my iPhone 3S would have fetched around $100. Again, do not forget to erase your data.

4) Recycle it: This is trickier than it sounds because not every e-waste recycler is doing it right. Far too many old phones, TVs and computers are shipped overseas to countries like China, India or Ghana, where the very poor do the dangerous—and unprotected—work of dismantling electronics to get at valuable trace metals. So you need to ensure that the company promising to recycle your e-waste is doing it right. This page from the Environmental Protection Agency is a good place to start, with a list of reputable recyclers from around the country. Scores of electronics retailers and manufacturers like BestBuy and HP now sponsor convenient recycling programs as well—including, if belatedly, Apple, which offers gift cards for phones and computers that still have monetary value.

Despite all the options, only about 20% of Americans make an effort to keep their outmoded electronics out of the landfill. For 2012, you can resolve to do better.

MORE: Is India’s E-Waste Problem Out of Control?

Bryan Walsh is a senior writer at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @bryanrwalsh. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME
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