Special Reports

Throwing that computer away may be hazardous to your health

One of the joys of living in an older neighborhood like College Hill are sidewalks. Few newer developments have them. Sidewalks encourage taking long strolls, where you can admire your neighbors gardens, enjoy the park and see all the crazy trash they throw away.

The old computer sitting on the curb across from College Hill Park caught my attention this week. Maybe whoever put it there hoped someone would take it an reuse it, as we do pieces of furniture, which usually disappears within a day. But those electronic gadgets that seem to dominate our lives are too hazardous to leave to chance. Don't trash them.

There are too many alternatives for them right here in Wichita.

We shouldn't be throwing this stuff away, because it contains toxic chemicals, including lead, mercury and flame retardants, which are health hazards. They also have parts which can be reused, saving manufacturing costs, fuel and gas. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates recycling a million laptops is equivalent to saving the electricity used by 3,657 homes in one year.

There's also gold in those cell phones and computers. The tiny bits of gold and copper in circuit boards can add up. A metric ton of circuit boards contain between 40 to 800 times the concentration of gold ore and 30-40 times the copper ore mined in the US each year, according to the EPA.

The Sedgwick County Extension Center offers an online recycling guide listing several places that take electronic equipment.

National retailers, including Best Buy and Staples offer e-cycling programs, as do many manufacturers.

Kansans are taking advantage of such opportunities. We rank among the top eight states for giving old electronics to Best Buy stores, according to the company, with 98,000 pounds collected last year.

But e-cycling can be dicey. Some who claim to recycle electronics don't do that at all. They take what they want, such as gold and copper, and throw the rest away. Or they ship the nasty stuff to third-world countries and create health hazards in those nations.

Todd McGee said he and his partner Bob Lawhead made hundreds of calls looking for responsible recyclers, when they opened American E-Waste Recyclers six years ago. McGee said he'd worked at a receiving center that claimed to recycle, but most stuff ended up in the trash.

"I figured we could do better," McGee said of his company at 716 S. Washington.

"We take everything that plugs in or runs on batteries," McGee said.

There, workers break down the components and ship them to the appropriate centers for reuse and recycling. Much of what they send out just goes across town.

"We try to stay as local as possible," McGee said, such sending the precious metals to Glickman Metal Recycling.

Most collections are free, except for microwaves ($10) and televisions with DLP screens ($25). The company will pick up larger items within Wichita for $25. Services to businesses and schools are free, McGee said.

Starkey, Inc., which provides career and life skills opportunities to the disabled, is another local collector of e-waste, including computers, video monitors and audio-visual recorders and players.

"We can take just about everything except big floor copiers," said spokeswoman Jamie Opat.

Starkey clients receive pay to break down the materials for third-party recyclers. School districts also have donated their old computers to Starkey, Opat said.

Donations may be made from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Friday at 4500 W. Maple. Businesses or groups with large loads should call ahead (316-512-4243).

Meanwhile, there are ways to make sure what you drop off goes to the right places.

E-Stewards, a non-profit based in Seattle, began certifying recycling centers for responsible handling of electronic materials and their toxic parts. There are none in Kansas, although one Topeka company is trying to become certified.

The EPA has "Plug-In to eCycling Partners" with companies with electronic recycling programs.

The Electronics TakeBack Coalition provides more helpful information about what you can do to cut the waste.

So there's no reason to kick that cell phone or computer to the curb.

Multimedia: Watch a video of what happens to all that stuff in this video "The Story of Electronics"

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