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Endless Love: Americans Are Hoarding Electronics

New study shows U.S. consumers have an insatiable appetite for tech gear and a strong reluctance to recycle it.

If the ads on television — and the mob scene at the mall — teach us one thing this holiday season, it’s that we Americans love our tech gear. To a fault.

There’s nothing wrong with lusting after the latest laptop, tablet or smartphone, mind you. But across the U.S. we’re developing a nasty habit of never wanting to let go of the old stuff even when we have our mitts on the hot new thing.

According to a new survey commissioned by office-supply chain Staples, the rate at which Americans get new electronic devices vastly eclipses their efforts to recycle old and unwanted tech gear. The American Tech Recycling Habits study found that nearly three-quarters of Americans (74 percent) own two or more television sets and 38 percent own two or more smartphones.

In fact, for every 100 American households, there are now 139 smartphones, 119 laptops and a whopping 252 televisions. Yet, only 8 percent of folks have ever recycled a single outdated gadget.

You might think that having closets and attics crammed with outdated electronic devices would quell the desire to acquire even more tech goodies. You’d be wrong. The study found that 52 percent of respondents would like to receive even more gadgets this holiday season.

The Staples findings mirror those of a similar survey by online electronics marketer uSell.com conducted last May. That poll found that 68 percent of Americans engage in “gadget hoarding,” defined as holding onto a device for more than two years without using it. About 70 percent of folks in the U.S. have multiple devices that they haven’t touched for more than three months.

The two polls come to a similar conclusion about the reasons for this reluctance to recycle old devices: 39 percent of the Staples survey respondents and 50 percent of those queried by uSell.com say they simply don’t know what to do or where to go to properly dispose of their old gadgets.

Lest you think this is strictly a consumer problem, consider the case of Coca Cola earlier this year. Company officials faced the embarrassing and costly problem of explaining to 74,000 current and former employees that personal information including Social Security numbers and driver’s license data had been compromised. The reason? Old laptops with unencrypted hard drives that had been stored in a closet were stolen by an IT staffer.

Other organizations such as the Veterans Administration and NASA have suffered nearly identical data losses as a result of equipment hoarding. Analysts estimate that 70 percent of U.S. businesses are hanging on to at least some of their old electronic equipment despite the known risks.

Which makes them a lot like the shoppers in the mall this holiday season: grabbing bags full of new technology without giving much thought to responsibly recycling the old. Here’s hoping the New Year ushers in some new and better habits.