YES! But How? :: Broken Office Equipment


We would like to recycle locally our broken copy machine and shredder.  We also have several old computer monitors and printers that we would like to give away. Could you help us?

The Electronic Industries Alliance (EIA), which launched a Consumer Education Initiative in 2001, can help you. Their website,, lists re-use and recycling programs by state, city, and county. The database lists hours of operation, contact information, what electronics they accept, and fee information for each program.

Also, Office Depot is partnering with Hewlett Packard to provide a free, nationwide electronics recycling program. You can drop off electronics at any Office Depot through September 6, 2004.  For details, see 

If you decide to recycle your electronics, ask the following questions:

  • Will they reclaim all the pieces, only the most valuable pieces, or simply extract toxics and put the rest in a landfill? The more they can reclaim, the better. 
  • How and where will the equipment be processed? It is best if the equipment is processed domestically because environmental regulations are likely to be more stringent than overseas. If they send it overseas, are there environmental regulations where they will send it? 
  • Can you see documentation about the receiving facility that handles the materials and proof that the materials were sent to the facility and handled in an environmentally sound manner?

 If you don't feel comfortable with their answers, find another recycler.

 —Michelle Burkhart


I've always thought microwave ovens are energy-hungry and emit dangerous radiation, but now I hear that they are actually more sustainable than conventional ovens.  Is this true?

According to Louis A. Bloomfield, professor of physics at the University of Virginia, cooking with microwave ovens is neither energy-hungry nor dangerous. In fact, compared to conventional ovens, microwave ovens are about five times more energy efficient, transferring 50 percent of their energy into food compared to the 10 percent energy transfer of conventional ovens.

Microwave particles are a type of radiation, but unlike ultraviolet rays or X-rays, microwaves do not affect cell structure. They simply stimulate water and fat molecules, which generate thermal heat.

You should be concerned about what you microwave food in. Specifically, do not microwave your food in plastic. Studies have shown that when any plastic container is microwaved—even one labeled “microwave safe”—it can leach dioxins, carcinogenic chemicals that the EPA considers a serious health hazard. Plastic wrap is especially harmful, leaching at least two carcinogenic chemicals into food including nonylphenol, which imitates estrogen in the body and is linked to breast cancer in women and low sperm counts in men.

Microwave your food in tempered glass, Corning Ware, or ceramic, and remember to remove items from TV-dinner trays and instant-soup containers.   

—Darrin Burgess


After reading that household smoke alarms contain radioactive material, I examined one of mine and sure enough, it had a radioactive warning symbol. Are all smoke detectors radioactive? How do I dispose of one? Do effective alternatives exist?

There are two kinds of household smoke alarms. The kind you've mentioned is called an ionization detector, which is cheap to manufacture and therefore very common. It is especially sensitive to transparent smoke created by open flames.

An ionization detector houses a tiny amount of americium-241, a radioactive element which is situated between two metal plates wired to a 9-volt battery. Am-241 releases a steady stream of alpha particles that ‘ionize' the air by knocking negative electrons off positive oxygen and nitrogen atoms. Electrons flow to one plate and atoms go to the other. When smoke particles enter the chamber, they interrupt this flow and trigger alarm.

The amount of radiation these detectors emit is infinitesimal. In fact, Consumer Reports researchers found that even up close, an ionization detector emits no more alpha radiation than what is naturally produced by the earth. Furthermore, alpha particles are blocked by a few inches of air and they can't even penetrate tissue paper.

Yet they can cause cancer if inhaled or ingested.  So don't tamper with the aluminum cap that houses the americium.  If it is made airborne, the consequences could be lethal.

This makes disposal tricky. Radiation can be released anytime a detector is crushed in a garbage truck or city disposal, incinerated by the city or even destroyed in a household fire. Fortunately, the EPA says your state may have a radiation control program that will accept these detectors. Otherwise, you should return it to the supplier, listed in the user's manual.

The alternative to an ionization detector is a photoelectric detector. When smoke particles enter this device, they scatter the light particles of a small beam, which hit a sensor and sound the alarm. Photoelectrics are better at detecting smoldering fires—by far the most common household fire and leading cause of fire-related fatalities.

—Darrin Burgess


What is socially responsible for one person may not be for another. For example, one mutual fund may screen out companies that support abortion and contraceptives because they screen based on Catholic values and another may include such companies to limit unwanted births and control population. This means that to ensure a fund matches your values, you need to scrutinize how they screen companies and how they approach investments.

Socially responsible investing (SRI) consists of four approaches: positive screening (investing in companies that align with your values), avoidance screening (diverting investments from companies that act contrary to your values), community investing (investing in community-based institutions), and shareholder activism (working from inside companies to influence practices and policies). The Social Investment Forum (SIF), a program of Co-op America, has a website ( that has a wealth of information about SRI and allows you to review “socially-responsible” mutual funds. The site lists the funds' performance data, how they screen, profiles, and links to the funds' websites. 

Begin with reviewing SIF's mutual fund chart that shows how each fund screens areas such as tobacco, defense/weapons, environment, human rights, labor relations, and community investment. If you are interested in a particular fund, check out their profile and if still interested, visit the fund's website. This is where you can research the fund's holdings, the percentage of each holding in the fund, and how much the fund invests in community-based institutions and participates in shareholder advocacy. When you find a fund that looks like it matches your values, ask for and study a copy of their prospectus. This will give you full disclosure of everything you need to know before you invest in the fund, including the fund's objectives and details of their screening.

If you would like help finding a mutual fund, consider hiring a financial planner knowledgeable in SRI. SIF has a database of financial planners in their network that you can access by clicking on “Find Help” in the “Investors” section of their homepage. You may also find this route helpful if you cannot find a mutual fund that matches your values and you decide to build your own portfolio.

You can also reach SIF by phone: 202/872-5319.

—Michelle Burkhart
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