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Recycling your old computers, cell phones and other gadgets is easier than you might have imagined, according to Will Sagar, executive director of the Southeast Recycling Development Council (SERDC). He says most big-name retailers will take back used electronics so they can recycle the parts. In fact, some states have passed laws requiring manufacturers to provide free electronics recycling programs to consumers, or even laws forbidding citizens from disposing of electronics in the regular solid waste stream. You can check with your local municipality or the electronics retailers in your community to find out a convenient drop-off location.
Some communities will pick up appliances curbside with the regular recycling, provided they’re made entirely of metal. Otherwise, small appliances, such as toasters or microwaves, can often be dealt with in the same way as electronics. Some retailers will take these items back, says Lichtenstein. Or you can check with your local municipality to see if your community sponsors take-back programs, which allow you to drop off your old appliances at a designated location. If all else fails, most scrap yards take appliances and salvage their valuable metals, says Lichtenstein.
Some objects require specific attention. Compact flourescent lamps (CFLs) contain small amounts of mercury, which can be released as a vapor if the bulb breaks, so it’s important to recycle them properly (filament and LED bulbs do not have this same requirement). In fact, some states actually have laws prohibiting citizens from throwing mercury-containing bulbs in the garbage.
Some home improvement stores have drop boxes for light bulbs, so check with some of your local retailers. If this isn’t an option, some manufacturers and a few nonprofit organizations offer mail-back services so you can return the used bulbs by post.
Since batteries can contain heavy metals and toxic chemicals, battery disposal is also regulated by law in some states. New York, for instance, prohibits consumers from disposing of rechargeable batteries in the solid waste stream, and also requires manufacturers to finance collection and recycling programs. Again, many communities have drop-off locations for these items, so check with your local municipality. Specific kinds of batteries, such as car batteries, can often be returned to their retailer. And, if all else fails, some organizations, such as Battery Solutions, take back batteries by mail as well.
Furniture is one of the trickiest categories when it comes to recycling. This is because most furniture is made out of many kinds of materials, such as wood, metal and mixed textiles, which must be separated before they can be properly recycled. Lichtenstein recommends trying not to buy furniture made of mixed materials in the first place, if possible. But if you want to recycle the furniture you already have, he recommends checking with local businesses that specialize in repurposing objects. “You might find a small cottage industry that’s taking old furniture and finding a way to fix it or take it apart and turn it into something else,” he says.
Clothing and Textiles
Clothing that’s still in good condition is easy — many thrift stores and charity organizations will gladly accept it. If the clothing is too worn to be usable, there are still options. Lichtenstein says some of the same organizations will also take unwearable textiles, which they will send on to manufacturers to be made into new items, such as industrial rags for use in auto mechanic shops. Check with your local Goodwill or Salvation Army branch to see if this is an option in your town. Lichtenstein adds that a few communities will even pick up textiles curbside with your papers and plastics, so it’s important to check on that option as well.
It’s tempting to just pour those unused or expired pills down the drain, but improperly disposing of leftover pharmaceuticals can have serious consequences. Recent studies have shown that these chemicals turn back up in local water supplies, with known environmental impacts and possible human health consequences. Luckily, it’s not difficult to find places that will take back unused medications. Many pharmacies have drop-off locations — CVS, for example, provides drug collection boxes for local law enforcement agencies that apply for them. Even if there isn’t a drop box available all the time, many communities host periodic drug take-back days, when local law enforcement agencies will collect unwanted meds at a designated spot.
Unfortunately, it’s almost impossible to truly recycle an unused pharmaceutical, says Lichtenstein. In most cases, the collected drugs are sent to a special facility where they’re incinerated. The important thing here is to keep the drugs out of the regular solid waste stream, where they could present an environmental hazard or even endanger other people or animals who might come across them in the garbage.
Medications aside, there are plenty of other chemicals out there to consider. Motor oil and paint are common examples of leftover chemicals people often end up having on their hands. These also pose a threat to the environment and should not be allowed to go into the regular solid waste stream, Lichtenstein says. Some communities have waste drop-off sites for these kinds of chemicals, or they might host chemical take-back events throughout the year.
Sometimes, businesses will accept chemicals that are relevant to their industry. Most garages and auto repair shops will take back used motor oil, which is easily cleaned and reused, Lichtenstein says. And some nonprofit organizations, such as PaintCare, have drop-off sites around the country and can direct you to the closest one.
Even organic materials can be recycled. “Backyard composting is an excellent way to handle food scraps,” says Sagar, from the SERDC. “Your cooperative extension department will have information on how to maintain your backyard composter so you’ll actually get a nutrient back for your soil.”
If you don’t have a backyard, you still have options. It’s possible to compost indoors on a smaller scale, usually with a small worm bin. Sagar recommends contacting your local cooperative extension for advice on how to do it properly. Alternatively, some communities have a central composting facility where citizens can bring their scraps. If you have a weekly drop off, get a freezer bin to store scraps so that they don’t decompose and stink up your home.
It’s easy to toss an old toaster or a bucket of paint in a drop-off bin, but recycling large objects like refrigerators and washing machines is relatively simple: Most large metal objects, such as bicycles or cars, should be taken to a scrapyard.
There is an exception: Large appliances like refrigerators and freezers contain chemicals called chlorofluorocarbons, or CFCs, which are hazardous to the environment. In some places, such as New York City, the Department of Sanitation will collect appliances containing CFCs from your curb. Otherwise, Lichtenstein says, most regions have a designated drop-off location for these items. If you’re transporting a CFC-containing appliance yourself, remember to keep the appliance upright, rather than laying it on its side, so the chemicals don’t leak out.
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