Menopausal Mother Nature

News about Climate Change and our Planet


One Thing You Can Do: Keep Your Old Gadgets Out of the Trash

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By Eduardo Garcia


CreditTyler Varsell

Technology moves fast. The coolest gadgets today will be obsolete in a few years and we’ll discard them to make room for new ones. Rarely a day goes by that I don’t see flat screens, printers and speakers languishing on the sidewalks of New York City.

About half of American states, including New York, have e-waste recycling laws, and around 20 states ban certain types of electronics from landfills. These laws were adopted because many gadgets contain toxic metals — like lead, mercury, cadmium and chromium — that can leak into groundwater and soil, poisoning the ecosystem.

The good news is that there are many environmentally friendly options for parting ways with your electronic devices.

First, you could consider trying to give those devices a second life. That applies especially to laptops, tablets and cellphones, which we often discard simply because we want to upgrade.

You could try selling them online, giving them to people you know, or to a charity or nonprofit group like Computers With Causes or the World Computer Exchange. (Experts recommend that you wipe hard drives and memory cards clean before giving the devices away.)

If the gadgets are broken or too old, you can take them to a certified recycling center where technicians may try to refurbish them for reuse in the United States or abroad.

Troy Hanna, a reuse technician at the Lower East Side Ecology Center in New York — a warehouse full of printers, stereos, desktop computers, screens and TV sets — said his goal in life was to put “landfills out of business.”

“When I refurbish an old computer and somebody buys it, then I do my job twice,” he said. “First for the environment, and second for that person who can now use a device that would have ended up in the landfill.”

The Lower East Side Ecology Center has a wide selection of laptops, flat-screen TVs, record players and speakers for sale. It also rents vintage devices for use as props on movie sets.

Many people take their used electronics to retailers like Best Buy and Staples, which then send them to recyclers, although they may charge a small fee to handle large items like TV screens.

Electronic devices often contain valuable metals like copper, silver, gold and lithium, too. Their components and circuit boards can be sent to smelters to reclaim those metals, a process that some recyclers call “urban mining.” Using recycled metals is less taxing to the environment than extracting, processing and transporting raw materials.

“The plastics, the metals, the glass; the vast majority of the content can get recycled,” said Jason Linnell, executive director of the National Center for Electronics Recycling. “There is very little that needs to go into landfills.”

Jake Thompson, a wind farm manager, left, and John Schwartz atop a turbine in Stanton, Tex. CreditBrandon Thibodeaux for The New York Times
John Schwartz

If you read my piece last week about Americans who grew up with ties to fossil fuels but found careers in renewable energy, you encountered people from across the country. Besides meeting so many fascinating people and working with a terrific photographer, Brandon Thibodeaux, I got to do something amazing for that story: I climbed a wind tower.

I wrote about the experience for Times Insider, but let me just tell you the main point here: Tiring and scary! The tower is about 300 feet, or about 28 stories, tall. Before I’d gotten halfway up, my forearms were burning and my legs were shaking. I was, in short, a mess. I’d rest on each of the tower’s four platforms, then keep going.

Why do it? There’s my natural inclination to want to, or, as I like to put it: To ride the rides.

Beyond that, experiences like this one help me tell my stories. Jake Thompson, whom I met in Stanton, Tex., told me that he was afraid of heights but looked into jobs in wind energy at his father’s suggestion.

“I looked out at the top,” he said of his first climb on a tower, “and decided that was going to be my career.” I wanted get a feel for what he’d done so that I could best convey it to readers.

The story had wonderful reporting moments, like sitting around a dining room table in Clawson, Utah, with three generations of the Riley family. That included Chris Riley, who grew up in state’s coal country and helped found a company that, by connecting western towns to renewable sources of energy, may hasten coal’s decline. He laid out for his family, for the first time, the full implications of his business model.

Their reaction was sober and supportive. It was a privilege to be with them.

And you know how they say “getting there is half the fun?” Well, no. It was two-hour drive from Salt Lake City to Clawson, with white-knuckle steering through mountain passes in a snowstorm. And after the interview, I had to take the same roads back.

It was totally worth it.

We occasionally hear criticism from readers who say that, as climate reporters, we should be reducing our own carbon footprint by avoiding air travel. I get that point. But to me, if you’re going to tell the story in a rich way, with the kind of detail that puts readers right there, you have to go there. And you should climb the ladder.

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