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When you think of tech gadgets, remember the three R's , reduce, reuse and recycle

Before you load up your shopping cart with tech gifts this holiday season, you might think a bit about what to do with those products when they're no longer shiny and new.

Before you load up your shopping cart with tech gifts this holiday season, you might think a bit about what to do with those products when they're no longer shiny and new.

I don't mean to be a Grinch, but there's a good chance many of those gadgets will end up in a landfill, either here or overseas. That's a problem, because many of them contain heavy metals and toxic chemicals that can leak into the environment, posing health problems for people and animals.

The good news is that there are steps you can take to prevent that from happening. The bad news is that doing so can be complicated and confusing.

The main advice from environmental groups is the same as it is for other products: the three R's of reduce, reuse and recycle.

Unfortunately, the last of those, which has probably received the most attention, is the most problematic.

Nationally, the Environmental Protection Agency estimates that less than 20 percent of televisions, computer products and cell phones are recycled at the end of their useful lives. That's up from 10 years ago, when the agency first started keeping track, but it's still a small percentage.

In California, the rate is likely higher, due to a law that bans such products from going into local landfills. But environmental groups believe that much of what is nominally recycled is actually shipped and effectively dumped overseas in developing countries such as China, India and Nigeria. Even when we think we're recycling, we're often just off-shoring our toxic waste.

That poses clear moral and ethical problems, but it can be hard for consumers to know what happens with their products once they take them to a recycling center.

Neither California nor federal law bars e-waste from being shipped overseas. The EPA is pushing for a new standard, but even that has loopholes, environmental groups charge.

So they've created their own certification program called the e-Stewards Initiative, at, which seeks to ensure that e-waste is disposed of properly. But certified centers can be few and far between.

That's why environmentalists encourage consumers to focus not just on recycling but also on the first two Rs: reduce and reuse.

Consumers have a practical reason to do so. This may seem obvious, but it bears stating in our tech-obsessed culture: You can save a lot of money by buying fewer products or holding on longer to the gadgets you've got. The $200 smart-phones, $300 notebooks and $1,000 TVs all add up. And the more frequently we swap them out for the newest version, the more money we spend.

You can also save money by paying closer attention to what you buy. Some computers, smart-phones and other products are easier and cheaper to upgrade, and thus have a potentially longer useful life.

Even if you no longer have use for a device, it may still prove useful to others. You'll find plenty of people on Craigslist and eBay interested in buying older computers and cell phones. If you can't sell it, you often can find a new home for a gadget with friends or family members, nonprofit organizations and sites such as Freecycle.

I know, thinking about the three R's isn't as exciting as imagining what the Super Bowl's going to look like on that new 46-inch flat-screen TV or how many cool apps you can download to your new smart-phone. But it just might make the world a better place.

Troy Wolverton:

(c) 2009, San Jose Mercury News (San Jose, Calif.).

Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.