If you're like a lot of people, you may have a laptop sitting in the corner of a spare room somewhere. It probably stopped working years ago. Or maybe you just upgraded to a more recent model, and never figured out what to do with the old one. Or with the iPhone you abandoned when you switched to Android, or with the BlackBerry you used before that. According to a recent survey, nearly 80 percent of Americans have old technology sitting around and the majority don't know where to recycle it -- or even whether you should.
It isn't just computers, of course. Old mattresses, expired medicines, different types of plastic: most people have asked themselves at various times whether certain items are recyclable, and if so, what's the best way to go about it. Recycling in the United States is a surprisingly complicated topic on which there are multiple opinions, but there are plenty of resources available to help provide the information you need.
The Environmental Protection Agency is a good starting point, with a background to the basics and benefits of the ‘Three Rs' (Reduce, Reuse, Recycle) and some tips on, for example, how to reduce food waste as well as how to recycle electronics.
An excellent one-stop shop for all your recycling information needs is Earth911. There is an abundance of answers to your recycling FAQs here: "I changed my own motor oil and filter. Can I throw them in the trash?" (Answer: No); "Do staples need to be removed from magazines before recycling?" (Answer: No, again); "Is paint recyclable?" (Latex, yes; lead-based, no); "How about plastic packing peanuts?" (Yes, but rarely curbside; better to reuse them or use a program such as that offered by the Alliance of Foam Packaging Recyclers); "What do they make with recycled roof shingles?" (They are typically reused as a component in hot mix asphalt to create pavement for roadways).
The ease with which you are able to recycle depends to some extent on where you live. In my Vermont village, recycling -- as well as trash -- is picked up curbside once a week by horse-drawn cart (seriously, it's adorable: check it out on this video), although as with most curbside programs, not everything is accepted.
Granted, not all rural areas have it so good. In contrast, many cities offer comprehensive curbside recycling programs, and also provide information on what can and can't be recycled. The city of Seattle, unsurprisingly, has an excellent website -- with drop-down menus, even -- to answer the question of "how do I get rid of this?" Most other municipalities will also provide similar information, if less comprehensively, on their websites.
If you're looking for somewhere to take your recycling, a number of sites can help you find a place close by. Recycler Finder allows you to find a recycling center, download a QR code to your smartphone, and use it to navigate there; I Want to Be Recycled has a much simpler interface for finding a recycling center - just enter a zip code - but also has all kinds of cool information, such as describing just what might happen with that aluminum can you recycle and what it might end up being remade into.
Sometimes, items can be recycled at the very places where those items were bought, or where similar items are sold. Many Lowe's locations, for example, allow the likes of paints, pesticides and rechargeable batteries to be dropped off, while Home Depot, as part of its Eco-Options Program, offers CFL bulb recycling at all its stores.
In 2007, Staples became the first U.S. retailer to offer a national electronics recycling program, and since 2012 has been offering free office electronics recycling to all customers in the United States; those customers can bring in their old computers, cell phones, gaming devices and more, wherever they were bought, for free recycling. (The company also recycled more than 56 million ink and toner cartridges in 2014 alone.)
However, although a number of retailers offer e-waste recycling programs, not all of them get good grades from watchdogs; Staples gets top marks on this list, but it's one of only a few to pass. In fact, it is worth noting that the issue of electronic waste is a serious and vexing one, not least because much of it is sent to less developed countries for recycling, which can result in significant pollution problems. The European Union has banned such exports except when the products have been proven safe; the United States, however, has not. The Basel Action Network has created an e-Stewards Program in an effort to establish a certifiable standard for socially-and-environmentally-responsible e-waste recyclers.
Because of its volume, the extent to which its growing, its toxicity and the particular social and environmental issues associated with it, e-waste is a particular focus of those who question recycling's efficacy.
But the broader system as it presently exists also has its critics, such as Lloyd Alter at TreeHugger, who argues that, "in the end, the consumer is subsidizing the manufacturers of pop and beer who won't sell refillable containers, the bottled water makers who have convinced us to buy a product we don't need, the takeout and packaged food containers that we purchase for convenience."
So does that mean you shouldn't recycle at all? Not if it means the alternative is sending the same stuff directly to the landfill, no. But instead of seeing recycling as a panacea, we should perhaps look upon it as the least bad option, or the one to exercise when others have been exhausted. Instead of the three Rs mentioned above, for example, Alter suggests seven of them, none of which are recycle: Reduce; Return; Reuse; Repair; Refill; Rot; and Refuse (as in, "Refuse to accept this **** from manufacturers any more").
This TreeHugger post is a helpful guide on the steps to take before you get to recycling; then, when you do get to that point, it -- along with the resources we've linked to here, and others that are available online -- can help make sure that any recycling you do is as efficient and genuinely useful as possible.