Used televisions and computer monitors pile up at a recycling center in Norway. Americans junked almost 3 million tons of electronics in 2006.

Johner Royalty-Free/Getty Images

Advantages of Refurbished Electronics

You've chosen to think on it and maybe get a little advice. Your environmentally conscious friend tells you that buying refurbished is the way to go. Why is that? By giving their products an update, electronics manufacturers can keep electronic waste out of landfills.

Electronic waste is a growing problem worldwide. People in the United States threw away almost 3 million tons of electronics in 2006. Those machines carry lead and other toxic materials, which are health hazards, but they can also contain gold, silver, copper and even platinum [source: The New York Times]. Recycling efforts have been slow to take off. Groups like the Electronics Takeback Coalition promote education of hazardous substances in electronics and programs in which manufacturers recycle the goods they sell.

Other organizations take electronic waste and make good use of it. Some schools and nonprofit groups accept empty printer cartridges, which they turn in for fundraising. Companies such as Funding Factory recycle empty cartridges and give rewards, such as school supplies, classroom tools and electronics. Rather than simply turning in their own, some groups solicit empty cartridges from others to help raise additional rewards points [source: The New York Times].

One problem that fuels the electronic waste boom is the constant release of new products into the consumer stream. For example, around 16 new cell phone models come out every month in the United States, making it easy for people to replace their phone. Iain Gillott, president of wireless analyst group iGR, believes 50 to 60 percent of cell phones are replaced because people get tired of the design [source: The New York Times].

Collective Good is a nonprofit organization that collects used cell phones and accessories, refurbishes them and sells them in developing countries where wireless phones are catching on quickly, thanks to difficulties in installing land-line infrastructure. When someone donates a phone, he or she can designate a charity to which the organization can donate a portion of each phone's resale or recycle value [source: Collective Good].

By reusing or recycling these phones, Collective Good keeps toxic materials in phones, such as lead, cadmium, beryllium, mercury and arsenic, from entering the environment [source: Grist].

Like a lot of other electronic waste, many used and broken cell phones are shipped overseas where the labor is cheap and so are cell phone replacement parts. There, shipping containers of old phones are taken apart and refurbished -- some of them in factories, others in booths at the village market [source: The New York Times].

Even with the growing numbers of cell phones recycled or refurbished in the United States each year, there are far more that are just sitting around. ReCellular, the largest cell phone recycler in the country, estimates that only about 10 percent of cell phones are being recycled. Many more are sitting on shelves or in drawers, unused. While it may not seem like it costs anything to leave the cell phone inert, there's an environmental cost to even that: According to Earthworks, an environmental group focusing on mineral development, mining gold for a circuit board of just one cell phone creates 220 pounds of waste [source: The New York Times].

­Everything seems great now -- you want to order that refurbished computer now, don't you? But you still can't get that question out of your head: "What will I do if something goes wrong?" Don't worry too much. That's only one of the obstacles in bringing refurbished electronic products back to market. Read more on the next page.