Dear Umbra,

Do you have any suggestions for locating a computer-recycling service in the Piedmont area of North Carolina?

Janet Fortune

Dearest Janet,

Frankly, I couldn’t even have located the Piedmont area of North Carolina before you wrote. With today’s technology, however, such ignorance is no barrier to giving advice. The rest of you, listen up, because Janet’s question will be your question some day. Electronic waste is a big, big problem.

Computers are nifty, and it’s astounding how we went from a model as big as a room to one smaller than our hand in a few decades. But see how we did it: using lead, cadmium, mercury, PVC, PBDEs, beryllium, and other nasties. One result of galloping technological innovation is piles of these and other useful, persistent, bioaccumulative toxins in our incinerators and landfills. As I hope you know by now, it’s a short hop from piles in landfills to piles in our livers.

Hay, there’s a better way.

So print out and save this information for the day when the screen at which you now gaze no longer suits your needs. The National Recycling Coalition’s list of electronics-recycling programs by state will get you started, whether you live in the Piedmont or Pismo Beach. If you can’t find anything local, the major manufacturers — Apple, Gateway, Dell, Hewlett-Packard, and IBM — all have take-back and trade-in programs. (Even eBay has gotten into the act.)

If you are willing to spread the electronics-recycling gospel — and it is a worthy task — the nonprofit environmental research organization Inform gives an excellent summary. (Technology has warped ahead in the few years since this was published, but the issues it describes haven’t changed.) By the way, ye office workers can do a world of good by insisting on a decent computer end-of-life plan at your jobs; Inform’s fact sheet is as good a place as any to start.

As usual, Europe has a jump on the U.S. when it comes to regulations: the European Union recently enacted two major electronic-waste laws that restrict use of hazardous substances and mandate recovery of gadgets. Several countries in Asia, too, have tightened up on both the manufacturing and disposal ends. In the U.S., a law along these lines will go into effect in California in 2007. The rest of us must just promise to be responsible — and it all starts in the Piedmont. Which, thanks to my computer, I can now easily find.

Soldering on,
Umbra