How to Recycle Tricky Materials: Our Guide to Recycling

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Everything from computers and electronics to paint and fluorescent light bulbs can be recycled.

It’s no secret that recycling is good for the environment. According to the Environmental Protection Agency’s Municipal Solid Waste (MSW) Generation, Recycling, and Disposal in the United States: Facts and Figures for 2008, Americans generated 249.6 million tons of waste in 2008 alone. An impressive 33.2 percent of that waste was recycled — a number that has been steadily rising since the 1980s.

“Over the last few decades, the generation, recycling, composting and disposal of MSW have changed substantially,” the Facts and Figures report says. “While solid waste generation has increased, from 3.66 to 4.50 pounds per person per day between 1980 and 2008, the recycling rate has also increased — from less than 10 percent of MSW generated in 1980 to over 33 percent in 2008. Disposal of waste to a landfill has decreased from 89 percent of the amount generated in 1980 to 54 percent of MSW in 2008.”

This progress is a huge step in the right direction for the environment, but we can do more. Our landfills will be less crowded and our air, water and soil will be cleaner if we learn to use only what we need and reuse as many items as possible. Many of us are already taking steps in the right direction: We’re recycling our soda cans, glass bottles, newspapers and office paper. But what should we do with more difficult items such as cell phones, computers and paint?

We’ve found some great solutions and resources to help you learn how to recycle many challenging materials.

How to Recycle Paint

A clean coat of paint can solve a lot of problems, but the paint that’s left over presents its own challenges. Fortunately, your old latex- or water-based paints usually can be reused if you know where to look. Many Household Hazardous Waste facilities put leftover paint to good use with Product Reuse programs.

In a community near the MOTHER EARTH NEWS office (Lawrence, Kan.), the Household Hazardous Waste facility collects leftover paint and consolidates it for a second life. Large containers of paint are available to residents at the Product Reuse Facility, and — get this — in Lawrence, the paint is free by appointment.

All other usable household products brought to the Household Hazardous Waste facility — such as automotive fluids and cleaning products — are “sold” (for free in Lawrence) at the Product Reuse Facility as well. You can find your local Household Hazardous Waste facility online to search for similar recycling opportunities.

How to Recycle Fluorescent Light Bulbs

While there is at least some debate about whether or not fluorescent light bulbs are the very best solution to energy-efficient light (read Do You Use CFLs at Home? and its comments for more information on mercury concerns, LED alternatives and more), many homes and offices are using them and benefiting from their energy efficiency. Compact fluorescent light bulbs (CFLs) are the size of regular incandescent light bulbs, and they were designed for easy use in home applications. However, because they contain small amounts of mercury, proper disposal of fluorescent bulbs is important. Recycling that mercury for use in new bulbs is a good way to make sure that hazardous materials don’t end up in landfills. As an added bonus, recycling fluorescent light bulbs means less new mercury is needed for new light bulbs.

The Home Depot’s CFL recycling program is a great option. Find a store nearby, place your used light bulbs in plastic bags, deposit them in The Home Depot’s bright orange collection units, and let them do the rest. IKEA stores also have recycling bins specifically for CFLs.

Your local Household Hazardous Waste facility may accept both compact fluorescent light bulbs (CFLs) and fluorescent tubes. Call ahead to be sure.

How to Recycle Car Batteries and Fluids

Many of us rely on automobiles to take us from one place to another, and our cars, vans and trucks require maintenance and periodical repair. The parts and fluids left over from that maintenance can often be recycled rather than thrown away.

A growing number of automotive parts and/or repair shops will recycle old car batteries, so ask those near you. Some Walmart stores will recycle car batteries from residential customers.

Many automotive parts and/or repair shops will also recycle used motor oil. AutoZone and Advance Auto Parts take used motor oil, or you can check with your local mechanic. You may also want to get in touch with your local Household Hazardous Waste facility. Some of these facilities accept used motor oil for recycling.

You can even learn how to change your car’s oil by yourself (How to Change the Oil in Your Car or Truck). This practice will probably save you money, and you can take the used oil to be recycled when you’re done.

How to Recycle Rechargeable Batteries and Cell Phones

According to the EPA, more than 100 million cell phones go out of use every year. Many phone companies give their customers new phones every few years, making the life span of a typical mobile phone relatively short. However, cell phones are easy to recycle through a program that also recycles rechargeable batteries: Call2Recycle.

Everybody from Staples and RadioShack to Home Depot and Lowe’s are getting involved with Call2Recycle. Here’s how it works: Call2Recycle has more than 30,000 drop-off locations, and they make finding their collection sites easy. Simply visit their website, choose the “find a recycling location” option, and type in your ZIP code. A list of locations near you will appear, and you can choose where you would like to take your rechargeable batteries and cell phones for recycling.

Any company or organization can sign up with Call2Recycle for free and will be sent a collection kit. This kit includes pre-paid shipping labels, bags in which to place the items and the box itself, as well as materials that explain how to properly package batteries for shipping. When your box is full, just ship it to the recycling facility and Call2Recycle will send you another kit.

Call2Recycle was the first battery program to become an e-Steward. The e-Steward program was developed by the Basel Action Network and ensures that materials deemed recycled are actually recycled rather than sent to developing countries, incinerated or put in landfills.

Almost all major wireless phone providers offer cell phone recycling programs, too. Many of them have drop-off areas in their retail stores, and some are even using old cell phones to support great causes. Verizon and Sprint will take any used wireless phone from any provider, recycle those that can’t be refurbished and restore the rest. Refurbished phones are sold to the public, and proceeds from these sales benefit charities — Verizon donates cell phones to victims of domestic violence, and Sprint’s earnings help fund free internet safety resources for children, parents and teachers.

Here are some other cell phone reuse and recycling resources:

AT&T Reuse & Recycle Program
T-Mobile Handset Recycling Program
Virgin Mobile Pass It On Program
Cricket Phone Recycling Program

How to Recycle Computers

Computers are notoriously difficult to dispose of. Throwing old computers away with your regular trash is a no-no because computers, like many electronics, contain hazardous waste materials. Additionally, your computer’s hard drive is like an enormous storage container, holding your personal information and probably some other files you wouldn’t want the world to see. The fact that computers are dangerous to throw away both personally and environmentally explains why some of us hold on to non-working or gently used computers for years.

Computer recycling and donating are great ways to keep dangerous materials out of landfills and — in some cases — to help an individual or group who might otherwise fall behind technologically.

If you’re looking to hand off your used computer quickly and easily, your local Best Buy store is a good place to start. Best Buy’s recycling service will accept laptop and desktop computers in most stores. You can choose to remove the hard drive yourself or let the Geek Squad do it for $9.99.

Many Goodwill stores are now accepting old computers for their Reconnect recycling program. Drop off your used computer at a participating Goodwill, and you won’t pay a penny. If you have a computer to donate, there’s a good chance you also have old computer accessories such as a mouse, printer or keyboard. Goodwill will accept almost any accessory that can be plugged into a computer to be recycled as well. They’ll even take your Xbox. Goodwill has partnered with Dell — the first large computer manufacturer to ban the practice of sending electronic waste to developing nations — in this effort.

If charitable recycling — or donating — is more your style, a number of organizations will accept used computers that still function properly and donate them to individuals or groups in need. World Computer Exchange accepts computer donations and gives the gift of technology to young people in developing nations. The National Cristina Foundation is a not-for-profit foundation that accepts used, working computers and gives them to people with disabilities, students at risk and economically disadvantaged people throughout the world.

Some other computer recycling resources:

Staples Computer and Office Technology Recycling
Apple Recycling Program
Dell Global Recycling Options

How to Recycle Old Electronics

What about all those other electronics you’ve got sitting around your house? In many of its stores, Best Buy’s recycling service accepts more than just computers. The “Program Details” for states from Kansas and Michigan to Iowa and New York say that Best Buy will accept “nearly everything electronic, including tube TVs and monitors up to 32 inches, flat-panel TVs and monitors up to 60 inches, peripherals, DVD players, home and car audio, cell phones, MP3 players and cables.” Recycling televisions and computer monitors will cost you $10 apiece in many stores, but you will be immediately reimbursed with a Best Buy gift card. Visit the Best Buy recycling website to learn about recycling in your state.

Walmart’s Gazelle online Electronics Trade-In program will pay you for your recycling efforts. If you have an old computer, camera or any other electronic item, you can fill out a little bit of information about it, and Walmart will make you an offer. If you accept, you’ll receive a gift card with that amount of money available, and you’ll ship your item (free of charge) to Walmart. The store reuses as much as possible of the electronics it receives, and everything else will be recycled.

If Walmart doesn’t make you an offer, it will still accept your electronics and recycle them.

Costco has teamed up with Gazelle for an online trade-in program of its own, and Target stores have a similar online trade-in program through NextWorth. RadioShack has a trade-in program too.

At Sears stores, if you buy a new refrigerator, they’ll recycle your old one for free. Sears will recycle used appliances, car batteries and even paint. Call your local store for more information.

How to Recycle Printer Cartridges

While the high price of ink may have you ready to toss your printer cartridges after they’re dry, you can recycle those old cartridges and ease their environmental impact.

Cartridge World is a great place to start. You can visit one of their 650 stores throughout the United States and Canada and drop off a used printer cartridge. Then, purchase a refilled or remanufactured cartridge as a replacement. Not only does this practice greatly reduce the number of old cartridges thrown away, it will likely save you money as well.

There are so many other places where you can recycle printer cartridges today that you’ll probably be able to find at least one in your area. Here are just a few of your options:

Walgreens printer cartridge refills
Best Buy cartridge recycling
Staples cartridge recycling

How to Recycle Furniture and Building Supplies

MOTHER EARTH NEWS readers tend to excel at construction projects. Some of you have even built your own houses! A cheap and Earth-friendly option for buying building and decorating materials is visiting a secondhand shop such as Habitat for Humanity’s ReStore, and donating leftover materials to the same shop to be used by another handyman or woman.

ReStores are a fantastic option because there are hundreds of stores throughout the country. Most stores accept donations of good-quality building materials and furniture. Find your ReStore and start donating.

Other secondhand shops vary in what they will accept, so don’t hesitate to give them a call and ask questions.

If you’ve got large amounts of supplies or furniture that you’re looking to donate, is another good way to find local people who will gladly accept (even buy) your gently-used couch, desk or front door.

If you still have questions about how to recycle certain tricky items, check out Earth911. This website has tons of information on how to recycle virtually anything.

Lindsey Siegele is the Senior Web Editor at Ogden Publications, the parent company of MOTHER EARTH NEWS. Find her on .

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