Technology

recycled electronics, recycled computers, identity theft from hard drives

What Really Happens to Recycled Computers and Electronics?

November 06, 2009 10:00 AM
by Haley A. Lovett
“Recycled” computers and electronics can end up in foreign dumps, or sold to identity thieves. Though U.S. laws do little to regulate e-cycling, you can protect yourself from fraud.

Journalism Students Uncover Truth About Recycled Computers and Electronics

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In countries such as Ghana, China and India, dumps consisting of miles and miles of electronic waste are the result of “recycling” programs from the West. A documentary by a group of Canadian journalism students profiles the journey taken by U.S. electronics from a recycling center to Hong Kong where they are dumped, reports the CBC.

These electronic wastelands create health and environmental hazards. According to the documentary, which aired on PBS’ “Frontline,” many people in these areas will burn the waste looking for trace amounts of scrap metal to sell, while breathing in the toxic fumes.

In other cases, according to the CBC, shipments of recycled or donated electronics are sold to criminals looking to extract personal information and commit fraud. The students making the documentary were able to buy a few hard drives for about $40 and find sensitive government information on one.

Background: The Basel Convention and the illegal export of electronic waste

The Basel Convention, signed in 1989 by 172 countries, bans the shipment of toxic waste from rich countries such as the United States to developing nations such as Ghana. According to The New York Times, the United States has not ratified the Basel Convention and therefore does not track the exportation of hazardous electronic waste.

The Basel Action Network is pushing for the U.S. government to ratify the convention to help prevent an increase in the export of analog TVs that may occur following the switch to digital television.

Both PBS and the CBC point out that exporting e-waste is supposed to be illegal, but recyclers often sell the waste from one place or another to attempt to retain a clean, local image, or they cover up the exportation as a “donation.” Also, the vast amount of empty containers that leave the United States after importing goods make exporting waste cheaper than safely recycling it.

How to Safely Recycle or Donate Computers and Electronics

According to the CBC, correctly wiping out or writing over your hard drive will protect you from any potential identity theft after it is recycled or donated. Destroying your hard drive may only contribute to the waste problem, as a computer can’t be donated and used.

When recycling a computer, you may consider looking for an organization that will donate your old machine to a local school or person in need. FindingDulcinea has a guide to recycling and donating your computer that will provide information on deleting sensitive data, and finding a responsible donation or recycling center in your area.

Properly recycling your old television sets is particularly important because of the harmful lead contained in them. FindingDulcinea has an article about how to recycle your old television set

Other electronics such as cell phone or old household appliances can be recycled too. For more information about where and how to recycle these other electronics, visit our findingDulcinea guide to recycling.

The best bet to prevent environmental damage is to consume less and to hold on to your electronics as long as they are working.
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