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What to Do With Old Electronics

Geoff Williams

Back in the 20th century, if you had an old TV or cell phone you no longer wanted, you threw it in the garbage and bought a new one.

Today, you can do the same thing -- but not without guilt. It's much more widely understood that electronics should be recycled -- not dumped in a landfill; there are toxic chemicals in electronics that eventually can leach into the ecosystem.

Of course, there are other reasons to rethink junking your old electronics. You probably paid a pretty penny for most of your stuff, and you may want to sell it to get a return on that investment. Meanwhile, some electronics might contain personal information, like your bank account details or photos of your kids.

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But if you have an old PC or TV that you were about to cart out to the curb or are ignoring in your basement, here's what you could do with it.

Keep it but find another use for it. Easier said than done for a lot of items, but you probably can use a lot of your smaller devices for something else, if they still work, says Chad Altier, the Scranton, Pennsylvania-based CEO and co-founder of iDropped.com, an electronic device-repair franchise.

"An iPhone 4, purchased in 2010, can be a phone for two years, a video game system for your young ones for two years and today, can exist as a television or cable remote in your spare bedroom," Altier says.

Altier offers up another example. "We had one customer show us a picture of their headboard where they cut out a section on each side," he says. "Each section was the exact size of an iPod Touch 4. This was their weather reporter, alarm clock and Siri was the couple's chancellor for any friendly fact disputes they had before they went to sleep."

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Give your electronics away. If you'd like an upgrade, someone else may be very happy with whatever you have. Giving away your smartphone or TV to your kids, parents, siblings, friends or charity is certainly a better outcome than letting it go into a landfill.

Joshua Reno is an assistant professor of anthropology at Binghamton University in New York, and the author of the new book, "Waste Away: Working and Living with a North American Landfill." For his research, he spent a year working as a paper picker at a large mega-landfill near Detroit. He says when walking the landfill, he would somewhat routinely come across electronics, like TVs and computers, in perfectly good condition.

But much more common finds were the electronic accessories, like cords and outlet strips, and those shouldn't end up in landfills either, Reno says.

Trade it in for money, or sell it outright. Gazelle.com offers cash for used consumer electronics. You look up your old device on the site and receive a cash offer. If you accept, Gazelle sends packaging materials and pays the shipping costs, and you wait for a check, a gift card or to be paid via PayPal.

OfferUp.com is a local mobile marketplace for buying and selling. Take a photo of your item, put down what you're willing to sell it for and with any luck, someone nearby will see it online, contact you and you'll meet -- preferably at a public place, the OfferUp website suggests -- to make your transaction.

Or a retailer might allow you to trade in your device. Unlimited Cellular, for instance, specializes in selling cell phone accessories, like phone cases and Bluetooth headsets, but it has a trade-in program, in which people can get a quote on the website, receive a free shipping label and get a gift card to Unlimited Cellular.

Recycle the electronics. There are probably quite a few recycling centers in your area that accept electronics, but you'll want to either call ahead or check out the website to be sure. For instance, your electronic recycler may accept your old computer monitor but not your TV.

In fact, television sets are probably the most annoying electronics to recycle. And since you paid plenty for your old TV, you won't be thrilled to know that many recycling centers will charge you to take it away. That's in part because TVs are difficult to recycle, due to being made up of a toxic stew of materials like lead, mercury, beryllium and cadmium. And then so many TVs are heavy.

If your recycling center is charging you, that often means the center isn't doing the recycling, and that your fee is paying the service to transport your TV someplace that does. (As a general rule, the heavier the TV, the more you'll pay, possibly as high as $50 or $75.)

And if you are worried about what your electronics might do to the environment, Reno suggests asking where your electronics are going to be recycled. If the recycling's being done in the U.S., the odds are very good that it'll be done responsibly, he says. If you learn that your old electronics are going abroad, especially to China, Reno says the picture is murkier.

It's important to ask those questions, Reno adds.

"We've spent more than a century worrying about, for good reason, the people who produce our stuff, and whether employees have good working conditions and fair pay, but for the most part, we still cannot account for who is unmaking our stuff," he says.

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Purge before pitching. Some companies and recycling centers will check your device for personal information before someone else gets their hands on it.

"Unlimited Cellular will triple check to make sure the phone's data is wiped clean before reselling," says Mendel Mendelovits, the company's CEO.

But what if you're dealing with an entity that has lax security measures? Or if you're reselling it yourself to a stranger?

Consumers should remove their memory card and clear the settings in the phone first, Mendelovits says.

In fact, Reno says that one computer he found in the landfill was in good enough shape that he took it home and discovered that it contained all kinds of personal information.

"I immediately wiped it clean," he says.

Do it sooner rather than later. Mendelovits says many people keep their old electronics because they think they might need them later.

"Most of the time, that doesn't happen," he asserts. "You very rarely go back to old technology. You will either run out to get your broken phone fixed or upgrade early, but meanwhile the old phone is sitting in your drawer collecting dust, and it's losing most of its resalable value."

But on the plus side, keep things long enough, and your basement or garage will eventually become one heck of an electronics museum.

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