Used electronics — we’ve described them as a growing mountain of trash, a danger to the environment and a toxic threat to the health of recycling workers in Third World countries. And we’re certainly not alone. All over the world, concerned organizations are focusing on how to safely dispose of electronic waste.

But what if we viewed all those millions of old smartphones, computer parts and e-gadgets not as garbage to get rid of, but as resources to put to use?

That’s the convention-busting paradigm shift behind the Green Electronics Challenge, and it’s the hopeful future of e-cycling.

An worldwide community of inventors

The tradition of using old stuff to create something new isn’t revolutionary. From soapbox derbies to architectural salvage projects, tinkerers all over the world have been building, adapting and re-purposing broken and worn parts for a very long time. What is revolutionary, though, is the way the internet has allowed online communities of inventors to collaborate despite the limits of distance.

This international community of “makers” is the focus of the Future Tense Initiative. A partnership between Slate magazine, Arizona State University and New America, Future Tense issued a Green Electronics Challenge to DIY inventors in the U.S. and China: create something new or improved with used electronic parts.

Turning trash to treasure

The results of the first Green Electronics Challenge are truly remarkable. In the English language division, the grand prize went to a gigantic touchscreen tablet built into a custom drafting table, made with a Wacos tablet and a 21-inch computer monitor. The judges’ prize was awarded to a project that used an old router to create a remote system for simple home tasks like watering plants or turning on LED lights.

The grand prize winner in the Chinsese language division was the project that created an atomic force microscope using parts from watches and DVD players, while the judges’ prize went to a laser engraving machine built with components from old CD drives and used computer printers. You can view more information about all these creations — and a lot more — at Instructables, where the contest was hosted.

Time to get inspired

Although the Green Electronics contest has ended, the challenge continues. This year’s Future Tense Challenge is a collaboration between the U.S. and Mexico, and focuses on innovative ways to generate clean, renewable energy.

If you happen to be a bit of a tinkerer yourself, get inspired and get involved! You’ll find many more contests and some amazing DIY projects at Instructables, from a crazy hack that salvages tiny batteries from junk mail to instructions for fixing your broken video game controller.

Not much of an inventor? You can still meet your own green electronics challenge by thinking of your old stuff in a new way. Before you toss away — or even recycle — your old electronics, consider making it a resource for something or someone else. You might be amazed by your own creativity!