Think about electronic waste and your mind probably wanders in one of two directions: In one, the computers, batteries, old televisions and cell phones float along on recycling conveyor belts, headed for a new future. In the other, landfills are filled to overflowing with the electronic gadgets we once stood in line for hours to possess.
So what vision is the right one? What, exactly, does happens to our e-waste once we ship it off to the recyclers?
There are limited laws in California, or the United States for that matter, on recycling electronic materials.
The state of California established a kind of consumer-funded market for certain electronic devices such as monitors and televisions, says Tom Padia, recycling director for Alameda County Waste Management's www.stop waste.org.
"People want to make sure the materials are handled in a manner that protects the environment, but there aren't enough (laws) concerning that now. Right now, the state laws don't apply to CPUs or other electronics."
Padia suggests looking for people in the Bay Area who refurbish rather than recycle computers.
"There are people who take old computers and use the parts to make working equipment and then donate the computers," Padia says. "And you can always refill your print cartridges rather than recycle them."
Oakland's OTX West recycles old computers and then gives them away to any student who lives in or attends school in Oakland. It also provides computers to schools, recreation centers and local nonprofit groups.
But what do you do about that hard drive with all your personal information stored on it? OTX West site manager Jeff Benton recommends the free program Darik's Boot and Nuke, better known as DBAN, which is available at dban.sourceforge.net.
"It wipes out all of the information on the hard drive so it's irretrievable," Benton says. "We can then use the hard drive, which we need to (refurbish) the computers. And don't take it to some shop that will charge you $100, because you can do it yourself. It takes about a half-hour to run the program and it's free."
Sims Recycling Solutions in Hayward is one of the larger e-waste recyclers in the Bay Area. The company recycles everything from microwaves to laptops.
"When I look at a computer or cell phone, I don't see what it does; I see the basic commodities," says Gregg Wolke, Sims division manager. "I see plastic, metal, wire and materials that once shredded can be placed back in the stream and made for other products. I would say that about 99 percent of electronic materials can be safely recycled."