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Environmentally Friendly Ways to Dispose of Old Electronic Devices

Ann-Elise Henzl

Plenty of people unwrapping gifts this week will find a gadget featuring the latest technology inside.

Sales of smart phones and tablets are growing, according to Forbes.com, and a couple big companies recently launched new gaming systems. That means there could be a lot of old electronic devices in need of a new home.

One place you can take them is Goodwill. Christopher Talton manages three of the retail outlets. Employees at the warehouse in the back of the Bay View store are sorting through electronic donations.

“Looks like quite a few printers, a scanner, lots of cords, I see a keyboard, I see Christmas lights, because again that’s going go be cords,” Talton says.

Talton says workers determine what to do with each, depending on its condition.

“First and foremost, we want to sell the items if they are of value. We’re going to get the most amount of money per item by pricing it and putting it on the sales floor, and hopefully selling it,” Talton says.

Those Goodwill cannot sell to customers, it sells to vendors who extract the reusable parts. They can be valuable, according to Sarah Murray of the state Department of Natural Resources.

“There’s small amounts of precious metals like copper and gold and silver, platinum. Those can get reclaimed by very specialized smelters and they can be reused in electronics or other products. Plastics from electronics sometimes get made into new electronics. They can be made into other things, like lawn furniture,” Murray says.

Murray says there’s another good reason not to throw out old electronics.

Credit Ann-Elise Henzl
Goodwill workers wear shirts bearing the organization’s philosophy on recycling

“Modern landfills are designed to keep contamination from getting into the environment, but there’s always the chance that eventually there could be some kind of contamination, maybe from the water that accumulates in landfills, and so it's just a better idea to make sure that we don’t put harmful things in there when we can avoid it,” Murray says.

There are other options, besides donating old devices. For instance, you can trade them. Kelly Stoeckigt works at the Best Buy store across from Mayfair Mall.

“They’re able to receive a store credit, pending the condition of the product,” Stoeckigt says.

The store also collects items with no trade-in value. The list of acceptable products may be longer than you’d expect.

"Cable, batteries – general batteries, laptop batteries – basically anything that you wouldn’t want to dispose in the garbage we’re able to do electronic recycling on,” Stoeckigt says.

Best Buy breaks even with its recycling program, and considers it a convenience for customers.

Credit Ann-Elise Henzl
Donated items in good condition end up on store shelves

Sarah Murray of the DNR says Wisconsin has come a long way in the four years since it adopted an electronics recycling law. It prohibits residents from throwing items like TVs, smart phones and computers into the trash, and requires their makers to pay for recycling. Murray says the law has diverted millions of pounds of electronic waste from landfills. She says in the past year, the total averaged out to nearly seven pounds per person.

Ann-Elise is WUWM's news director.