Don't Toss Your PC in the Trash

There's a right and wrong way to recycle a computer.
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Recycling a PC means knowing where it goes after it leaves your hands.

Personal computers might be largely safe for everyday use -- aside from the danger of overheated batteries in some models -- but they're poison when it comes to throwing them away.

The

EPA estimates that 15% of discarded computers wind up in landfills every year, where they leak toxins like lead, mercury and even arsenic into the soil and potentially the groundwater. Dumping PCs (and other electronic goods like cell phones) also prevents valuable materials like copper, gold and aluminum from being recovered and recycled. (Blogger

Ecogeek has more information on recycling cell phones.)

So when I recently brought home a sleek new

Apple

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iMac, the home-office equivalent of a Ferrari convertible, I began a search for the best route to take with the old jalopy it replaced.

A host of options are available these days for recycling and reusing computers and other electronics -- some even give you a small financial benefit.

Green Citizen explores some of them in its electronics blog. That means there's little excuse for letting out-of-date machines clutter up the basement anymore, and there's absolutely no excuse for kicking them to the curb.

I didn't want to dump my old reliable in the trash, of course, and I certainly didn't want it joining the 75% of PCs that the EPA estimates are out there gathering dust in garages, basements and storerooms. That left me to choose between selling, recycling or donating.

Ideally, I wanted a solution that would be both environmentally responsible and convenient. All the better if it sent a little money my way.

I'd squeezed a good seven years out of my previous blue iMac by goosing the memory, adding a wireless modem and upgrading the operating system and software. But, still, at best I had a 2004 computer in a 2000 shell and a quick cruise around

eBay

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indicated that if I sold it at all it might fetch a paltry $50.

Since I'm not a regular seller and couldn't be bothered with the Web posting and shipping, I'd probably let the nearest

iSoldIt store do it for me, which means I might recoup half of what it sold for, and I would have to get it to the store without breaking it. It might be worthwhile for a newer machine, but for mine the solution offered too much hassle and too little financial gain.

Plus, I'd have no idea what happened to the computer when it left my sight.

Apple

recycles its computers and iPods at no charge, and even gives a 10% discount on your next iPod if you bring an old one to an Apple Store for disposal. That's super easy and the discount is a nice bonus if you know you're in the market for a new MP3 player anyway.

When I bought the new desktop, the company emailed me a

FedEx

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barcode that I could print out and bring to my nearest shipping center so that mailing it to them would be on their tab, too. Even though some of the parts will still wind up as waste, it's a reasonably responsible choice, environmentally.

Apple keeps all its recycling operations in the U.S. and is too focused on protecting its brand image to screw it up. It wouldn't cost me anything, but I wouldn't make any money, either, and there's the hassle factor: While it doesn't matter if the unit gets where it's going in one piece, I still have to box it up and get it to FedEx.

Dell

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,

HP

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, and

Gateway

(GTW)

also have recycling and trade-in programs -- and the machines don't always have to be the same brand as the one you just bought.

Goodwill is my reliable fall back for getting rid of old electronics. A spokesperson said the organization makes every effort to monetize donations, so if it can't sell your machine in the store it will next try to direct it toward one of its own refurbishment programs or recycle it for cash (they have a partnership with Dell for this). But she said that some electronic goods still find their way to the dump if nothing else can be done with them.

I would have to drive the machine to my nearest Goodwill store, but I could fold it in with one of my regular seasonal runs and get rid of some other electronic odds and ends at the same time. Also, I'd get a tax deduction. The

IRS Web site and myriad

Google

searches turned up little advice on how much of a deduction I could take. The best I could discern is that the IRS will let you deduct the fair market value of goods donated, but it doesn't offer any guidelines on how determine that. I could probably deduct the $50 I see similar machines selling for on eBay if not a little more.

It's not a bad option, but I'd like to know with more certainty where my PC will wind up.

My last possibility was a more targeted donation. A group called

Non-Profit Computing matches computer donors with schools, community centers and not-for-profits that need technology.

With a quick call to its offices I found out that a revamped computer like mine would be easy to place and most likely used for several years. I can get my tax deduction, see if the organization can use any of my spare peripherals (a zip drive maybe?) to goose that deduction higher, and they'd probably be willing to pick the stuff up at my house, so no schlepping required.

Reuse is better than recycling because it keeps the nonrecyclable parts out of the trash longer and prevents (or in my case offsets) new consumption. A small tax deduction is the best financial gain I'll get from this, and I can't argue with door-to-door service.

For me, this is the best option and I'll be making arrangements for a computer pickup. Those in other cities who choose to follow suit can do an Internet search using the keywords "computer donations" and their city to find similar groups in their communities, such as NextStep Recycling in Eugene, Ore.

Eileen P. Gunn writes about the business of life and is the author of "Your Career Is an Extreme Sport." You can learn more about her at

her Web site.