What happens to your discarded old computer?

You traded in that cumbersome, old monitor for a swanky new flat screen. But where does the old monitor end up? See our collection of computer hardware pictures.
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Remember how good it felt the last time you hauled your clunky, old computer and monitor out to the curb and went back inside to turn on your shiny, new PC? Well as it turns out, that quick trip to the trash wasn't the best idea you ever had.

A growing number of advocacy groups are working to educate the public on what happens to their discarded, old computers and why they may want to take more precautions when disposing them. What many of us don't realize is that our electronics and other household electrical gadgets are potential Molotov cocktails, filled with unsavory heavy metals and toxic chemicals.

Before we talk about the dangers, let's first examine how ubiquitous these types of products have become in the U.S. and around the world. Americans own billions of electronic products, including 200 million computers [source: Downing].

With high technology turnover and obsolescence rates, in the next five years, about a billion computers around the world will be discarded [source: Ladou]. And how quickly are we discarding computers in the U.S.? The Environmental Protection Agency ­estimates 20 million computers were thrown out in 1998. By 2005, that number had more than doubled, with estimates at 130,000 computers being discarded daily [source: EPA]. In addition to computers, Americans toss out millions of cell phones and TVs each year. On the other side of the pond, Europeans discard about 6.5 million tons of household electronic items each year [source: WEEE Man Project].

The technical term for all this high-tech garbage is e-waste. It refers to products like TVs and computers (including keyboards, monitors, ­mouses, printers, scanners and other accessories). E-waste also includes cell phones, DVD players, video cameras and answering machines. The term refers to any products that use electricity, like refrigerators, toasters, lamps, toys, power drills, and pacemakers. For simplicity's sake, this article will refer to all of these devices as electronics. For a more in-depth look at e-waste and what it involves, read How E-waste Works.

We'll examine what lies underneath the outer casing of your discarded computer and other e-waste, and why you should care what happens to it after you give it the big heave-ho.