E-Trash

Americans throw away more than 150 million computer products and nearly 130 million cell phones every year, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Yet other numbers suggest that’s not even half of our total electronic waste—most of it piles up in dark storage closets while we try to figure out how to dispose of it.

Jerry Palmer, an environmental specialist with Sarasota County, says that most small businesses know they should not simply dump old computers, printers and cell phones in the trash, and most are aware of the dangers that come from lead or mercury piling up in landfills and seeping into groundwater. (In case you haven’t heard, the majority of materials in electronics are toxic, he says, “meaning they’ll end up back in the environment in the form of a pollutant.”) But, says Palmer, many businesses “don’t know what to do with it, so they accumulate stuff and squirrel it away in a closet.”

When a vague sense of responsible disposal leads to a mountain of electronic waste in your office, it’s probably time to get help. Since this is a relatively new issue, though, it’s OK to ask for directions. Call (941) 861-5000 or visit scgov.net in Sarasota; and (941) 748-4501 or visit mymanatee.org in Manatee for tips about convenient drop-off locations or local companies that will come to your office to collect old electronics.

Those companies will be able to remove reusable materials and recycle them in the same way that many businesses already recycle paper and plastic, ensuring that hazardous waste does not end up in our landfills.

Four questionsto ask about your e-waste.

Can someone else use this? An outdated computer to you might be a valuable resource to someone else. Before dumping old technology, consider asking one of the many local nonprofits if they can use that equipment to help someone in need. Public schools in both Sarasota and Manatee accept computer donations, as do resource stores like Goodwill.

Do I really have everything I need? Palmer says people often call Waste Management to ask if they can retrieve data from the recycled computer they just dropped off, and the answer is always no. Before you take your computer to a drop-off location or donate it to a nonprofit, make sure all of your important information is backed up or accessible somewhere else. Computers store data long after we think it’s deleted, so make sure your personal information is safe. You may need to remove the operating system, or even “take the hard drive out and drive a nail through it,” Palmer says.

Can this be recycled? Even if the equipment is unusable, the basic materials—typically including lead, zinc and chromium—are recoverable. “We don’t have to expend the  energy to mine that material again,” says Palmer. If you pay a company  to collect your old electronics,  make sure to ask if they plan to recycle as much material as possible—responsible disposal is good for everybody.

What do I do next? Most people don’t realize this, but federal law requires that businesses keep records of how they dispose of hazardous materials for at least three years. Always keep track of what, when and how electronic waste leaves your office.

Do you have story ideas? E-mail our editor at susanb@biz941.com

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