DALLAS -- When a computer dies, its parts live on. In a landfill, the metals and plastics break down slowly and terribly, creating a toxic stew that can sludge up the groundwater supply.
But it doesn't have to end this way. In the past few years, personal computer makers have made it increasingly easy to recycle computers responsibly.
In many cases, they'll arrange to pick up a dead PC from a customer's doorstep for free.
A few years ago, environmental groups pushed hard for makers of personal computers to take responsibility for recycling their products, but it was a tough sell. The manufacturers argued that it was up to customers to decide whether to recycle.
But recycling options were few. Eventually, PC makers realized they could use their logistical systems to recycle the machines cheaply.
Now, many offer some kind of recycling option. At the same time, environmental groups have begun rating recycling contractors based on their disposal practices and other criteria, giving consumers more information about where to send their obsolete or dysfunctional machines.
Consumers can also consult the Web to see which manufacturers do the best job in recycling and making computers with more environmentally friendly materials.
"It's a way of differentiating leading corporations from those who see no need to take responsibility for the toxic chemicals that are in their merchandise," said Robert Andrews, program director of the Dallas-Fort Worth office of the Texas Campaign for the Environment.
Manufacturers aren't the only ones offering recycling services. Some local governments have drop-off locations for cheap or free recycling, though they're often for local residents only.
But be careful. Not all recyclers dispose of waste responsibly, and it's best to make sure you know what will happen to the materials in your old PC. Big PC makers such as Dell Inc. and Hewlett-Packard Co. work with recyclers that have been vetted by environmental groups.
If you send your computer to a PC maker for recycling, you'll provide the packaging. You can download a shipping bill when you order the recycling service online. If you want to be really Earth-friendly, pack it in a used shipping box.
Some deals are better than others, and most PC makers will accept other manufacturers' equipment for a fee, so shop around.
Here are some of the top brands' recycling programs.
Dell has turned around its once-shaky relationship with environmental groups. The company ranked second on the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition's 2005 report card on computer makers, just behind Hewlett-Packard.
Dell has the biggest market share in the United States and the world, so its program is especially important and influential. This month, the company began offering free recycling of all Dell products through its Web site. Just enter the product information, print out a waybill, box it up and set it outside for the delivery guy.
The company recycles non-Dell products for free with the purchase of a new PC.
Also, it routes usable computers to the National Cristina Foundation, which donates them to charities, schools and public agencies.
HP has a couple of options through its Web site. You can trade in computers and other old equipment of any brand in exchange for credit toward HP products. Or you can recycle any brand at a cost of $13 to $34 per unit.
HP, the second-largest computer seller, also offers electronic coupons for free recycling of old products when you buy a new computer from the company.
Like Dell, the company can route donations to the National Cristina Foundation.
Buy a new or refurbished Apple computer or monitor, and you can send your old clunker back to the company free of charge. If you're not buying a new computer, you'll pay $30 per unit to send the company up to 60 pounds' worth of e-junk.
Got a busted iPod? Take it to your local Apple retail store for free recycling and a 10 percent discount on a new iPod.
Environmental groups are still trying to get Apple to take back iPods from people who don't live near one of the company's stores.
You won't be sending anything back for free, but you can get credit toward the purchase of a new PC.
You can also pay Gateway to recycle stuff of any brand. The company charges based on the weight of the product, with a maximum of 70 pounds.
The Chinese company Lenovo bought International Business Machines' PC business last year. If you're looking to get rid of an old ThinkPad, you can try Lenovo's buyback program. It also offers a mail-in recycling program for any brand of product for $30 per box.
If you'd rather drop off your old PC at a local government collection center or company, be clear about what happens to it. Some recyclers send the material overseas for reuse, but their offshore partners are not always responsible about disposing of them in an environmentally safe manner.
If you use a local recycler, ask whether the products will be shipped overseas. If they are, it's best to do some further investigation - or shell out the money to have a major PC maker handle it. Check out the Basel Action Network's site at www.ban.org.