Throwing away a dusty, broken printer or a intensely cracked old iPhone will be against the law in New York starting in 2015. A new "e-waste" ban goes into effect in the new year, making it illegal to put your discarded VCRs and underused iPods in the garbage. People who do can get fined $100 per item.
This isn't the only law against putting old electronics in the trash. There are 20 states with disposal or landfill bans for electronics. The specifics vary from state to state, but generally anything with a circuit board that has come to the end of its lifespan as a usable product fits under the umbrella. California has some of the strictest regulations on e-waste, and considers old electronics in the same category as hazardous waste. The cathode ray tubes in old TVs and monitors contain lead, cadmium, silver, and gold, all varying degrees of bad to put into the ground.
Whether or not you're legally obligated to keep your ancient Zune out of the trash, there are plenty of opportunities to get rid of old gadgets in better ways. People can use manufacturers' take back programs to get rid of old electronics and avoid a fat fine (and, you know, not further pollute). In many cases, that means you can drop electronics off at Best Buy. You can also often mail them back to companies like Dell and Apple. There are also drop-off centers in many major cities. In New York, for instance, you can bring your old gadgets to the Lower East Side Ecology Center. In California, many campuses offer electronic drop-offs, including Stanford.
Still, many manufacturers and sellers of electronics remain apathetic. Target, unlike Best Buy and Walmart, doesn't have a take back program. Even companies with programs often use recyclers that are not certified to the e-steward standard. This lack of accountability has already led to "recycling" programs that do little more than roundup old electronics in the U.S. and dump them in places like Guiyu, China.
Even the most advanced, beautifully crafted products degrade over time. As long as there are phones and computers and monitors and any other gizmo with a circuit board, there will be phones and computers and monitors that people want to abandon for something newer and faster. Making it easier to do so in a way that doesn't trash the planet even more is something that should be encouraged, and then forced if encouragement doesn't cut it.
Laws like the New York will incentivize people to not dispose of their old gadgets the easy and bad way by dangling a punishment, but that's only half the solution. It's important that manufacturers actively work to make choosing the ecologically friendly option more appealing than risking a fine, and that the rest of the country steps up to the plate in the meantime.
Photo via Creative Commons