U.S. Flounders in Tech Trash Recycling

Tech trash

Green may be the new black, but many U.S. consumers are not recycling old electronic gadgets despite promises by multiple organizations for hassle-free ways to get rid of electronic waste.

Putting computers, televisions or cell phones in the trash is increasingly frowned on, and states like Massachusetts ban discarding many electronics in garbage cans. As a result, some local authorities arrange free recycling events and companies and charities around the country offer to recycle old devices.

But while most U.S consumers say they approve of recycling, a large number are not actually doing it. Stephen Baker of consumer research firm NPD Group has an idea why.

“People aren’t doing it because people are lazy. When it comes right down to it there are no incentives. Most of the time it costs them money and even if it doesn’t, the customer has to be proactive,” Baker said.

U.S. consumers will spend $171 billion on 500 million electronics devices in 2008, adding to the existing 2.9 billion pileup of items such as televisions, computers and cell phones, according to the Consumer Electronics Association.

Lots of these gadgets will replace existing items. Many people say they keep old devices with a view to passing them on to relatives. Their more entrepreneurial and Web-savvy counterparts often sell used gadgets on sites like eBay (NASDAQ: EBAY) and Craigslist.org.

But while the percentage of old electronics thrown in the trash can dropped to 19 percent in 2007 from 21 percent in 2005, according to the association, U.S. consumers still ditch millions of device such as TVs and computers with their coffee grinds and candy wrappers.

Big effort

Major U.S. mobile providers Verizon Wireless, AT&T (NYSE: T) and Sprint Nextel (NYSE: S) accept old cell phones at their stores. Groups such as greenphone.com even pay to take phones that are no longer in use. But still less than one in 10 consumers recycles a phone, researcher iSuppli said.

“I had originally been saving mine for my grandmother, and the years went on,” said Tracy Sullivan, a marketing specialist who lives in Medford, Mass., and recalled having to make a big effort to find local recycling options.

“You have to really want to recycle and find the information. It’s there if you go looking for it,” she said.

In Chelmsford, Massachusetts, sanitation workers will not collect a computer screen or a TV from the curb because of a state ban on trashing those items. But the town has struggled to find alternatives for its 33,000 residents.

Its recycling coordinator, Jennifer Almeida, described twice-yearly recycling days when residents drop off gadgets as “extremely inefficient,” even if they reap hundreds of devices.

“It’s a bit of a madhouse,” she said, recalling lines of cars waiting with engines running for the event to begin. “It’s not convenient for residents and it’s just not earth friendly. It’s a whole lot of cars burning a whole lot of fuel.”

Local companies offer to pick up gadgets with fees ranging from $10 to $50, depending on the type of devices or their number. Almeida is looking for a cheaper curbside pick-up alternative that she hopes will be available this summer.

Companies such as computer maker Dell (NASDAQ: DELL) and retailer Staples (NASDAQ: SPLS) also offer recycling. Dell picks up its own computers or printers from your doorstep at no charge but only collects non-Dell PCs from consumers who are buying a Dell computer.

Hefty bill

Staples takes in small items such as keyboards free at its stores but charges $10 each for bigger items such as computers.

Linda Wilson, the technology director at Hoffman Agency in Denver, said she was surprised by a hefty bill when Waste Management (NYSE: WMI) came to pick up old computer gear, some of which her co-workers had brought in from home.

“They said they’d pick it up for free but when the driver got here he said, ‘Didn’t they tell you it’s $10 a monitor?'” said Wilson, who also noted that the recycler would not guarantee it would wipe data from computer hard drives.

Reluctance to recycle often stems from privacy concerns, as personal data can still lurk on hard drives even if the drives are wiped clean. “You’ve got to be careful,” said Wilson, who said that overwriting a disk several times could help.

Wilson, who recalls finding electronics recycling more convenient in San Jose, Silicon Valley, said she has since found a local Denver church that holds a twice-yearly free recycling event. But this still takes some effort.

“I have probably four printers in my basement that I have to get rid of and just haven’t taken the time,” she said.

Yet there is an abundance of recycling information on the Internet at sites such as Earth911.org. Earth Day, which started in 1970 and is scheduled for April 22 this year, will promote awareness of environmental issues such as recycling at ww2.earthday.net.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency also displays a lot of useful information about electronics recycling here

While consumers can also find easy choices on their local authority’s Web site, analysts say it doesn’t help that recycling options vary widely from location to location.

“I suspect everybody has an option. It depends whether you want to go to the trouble of finding it,” NPD’s Baker said.

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