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How to recycle your old computer

recycling old computerWe live in a world of incredible innovation in consumer technology. What’s cutting-edge now (Retina display Macbook Pro, anyone?) will likely be ho-hum only a few years down the road. We’ve all grown accustomed to the planned obsolescence of our electronics. Keeping a primary computer running smoothly for five years or longer seems like a herculean task, and very few self-respecting gamers would consider using their machine for longer than two years – at least, not without major component upgrades.

There’s undoubtedly an upshot to all this. Newer, faster, more powerful devices keep popping up, and in turn the technology we were previously perfectly happy with gets cheaper and cheaper. But there’s a darker side, too. Discarded, outdated, or broken electronics pose a serious environmental problem. 

Previously, we’ve covered how to recycle your old iPhones. With the holidays on our heels, you may soon be getting that new laptop you’ve been wanting. But what do you do with your old one? Follow our guide on recycling computers to make sure your well-loved laptops and desktops end up where they belong.

A word of caution on recycling

Before getting into the details, it’s important to understand how – and why – to recycle computer parts ethically. According to a 2010 NPR story, even when we try to do the right thing and recycle our e-waste, about 80 percent of it ends up in countries like China, India, or Nigeria. There, during so-called “dirty” recycling, low-wage workers perform tasks like bathing computer parts in acid to retrieve gold components. They’re exposed to heated mercury, lead, and other toxic materials without any protective gear. Meanwhile, unprofitable plastic parts often end up in landfills anyway.

Dirty recycling has become such a problem that at least 25 states have passed laws regulating e-waste, usually by requiring electronics manufacturers to recycle as much as they sell. Below, we’ll cover how to find reputable and environmentally-responsible recyclers for your goods.

Step 1: Wipe all personal information

While many recyclers and donation programs offer to wipe your hard drive for you, we recommend erasing all personal data yourself for safety reasons. Don’t forget to back up everything you need first!

Some beginners fall into the trap of thinking that simply deleting personal files will do the trick. This makes your data harder to find, but doesn’t erase it entirely. An experienced programmer can still retrieve it easily. Rather, we recommend fully overwriting your hard drive, preferably multiple times, and then re-installing your operating system from scratch if you need to (for instance, if you’re donating the computer). After all, physically smashing your hard drive to bits a la Office Space may be satisfying, but it still doesn’t solve the problem of environmental contaminants.

When it comes to drive-rewriting programs, the U.S. Department of Defense guidelines serve as the market standard. However, any of the following software should do the trick. Again, don’t forget to back up your files and make a backup disk of your OS before beginning!

1. Darick’s Boot and Nuke (DBAN) – Darik’s Boot and Nuke, an unsupported freeware program, gets the job done. Download the .iso file, burn it to disk, and boot your computer using DBAN after entering the BIOS screen.

2. Active@ Kill Disk – While Active@ Kill Disk comes free for basic wipes, only the paid version ($39.95) conforms to DOD standards. Don’t be fooled by the mediocre rating; most low-raters didn’t realize that this program would do what it says it does and were surprised to see their hard drive erased.

3. WipeDrive – WipeDrive is the power tool of disk overwrite utilities: not only does it conform to DOD standards, but its clients actually include the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, as well as the U.S. Army and Navy. However, this prowess doesn’t come free. The unpaid version only wipes 25 percent of your data, making it useless except for trials, while the full version is currently on sale for $19.95.

Step 2: Attempt to donate your computer

Remember the old “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle” posters from grade school? Well, there’s a reason that “Reduce” and “Reuse” come first. It’s actually much better for the environment to donate your old computer to a place that might still be able to use it – like a school or retirement center – than it is to strip it down and recycle it part-by-part, which is both energy- and labor-intensive. In other words, unless you dropped your computer in a bonfire or spilled hot cocoa across the motherboard, it’s worth trying to donate it before you opt for recycling. The following are all good starting places.

1. The National Cristina Foundation – From the website of the National Cristina Foundation, you can search for non-profits in your neighborhood seeking computers for at-risk students, people with disabilities, and low-income individuals. This way, your donation stays local, and you might even help someone join the digital age.

2. Dell Reconnect through Goodwill – Dell Reconnect represents Dell’s partnership with Goodwill, and in many ways, offers the best of both worlds. If Goodwill workers can refurbish and resell your computer, they will; if not, they’ll recycle it for you, adhering to an e-waste policy that prohibits export to developing countries. Best of all, the program accepts any brand of computer in any condition at more than 2,500 locations and can provide receipts for tax purposes.

3. Free Geek – Free Geek accepts even broken computers and spare parts, making it one of the few donation services to take machines in any condition. Afterward, this teaching-oriented non-profit transforms them into “FreekBoxes,” Frankenstein-like assemblages of refurbished parts running Linux. Even if you don’t live in Portland, Oregon, where the company is based, you can mail used computers and other electronics to them. Simply write “Attn: Hardware Donation” on the package. You’ll need to pay for shipping yourself. Free Geek also asks for a nominal monetary donation with each electronics donation, but your entire donation is tax-deductible, and goes to a fantastic cause to boot.

Step 3: Recycle through a reputable service

As discussed above, all electronics recycling programs are not created equal. Be sure to check out the EPA guide and the list below to find places to donate for free while keeping a good conscience.

1. e-Stewards certified recyclers – All e-Stewards certified recyclers come pre-vetted as environmentally responsible. Affiliated with the Basel Action Network, a major activist group fighting e-waste, e-Stewards certification means no landfills, no incinerators, no prison labor, and no export to developing countries.

2. Best Buy – As of September, Best Buy’s Recycling Program has committed to partnering exclusively with recyclers certified to e-Stewards standards, making it one of the best “big box” options for recycling. The program will accept any computer brand in any condition, no matter where you bought it, as well as TVs, cell phones, and most other electronics. Just bring your worn-out goodies to any Best Buy store.

3. Dell – In addition to the Dell Reconnect program through Goodwill mentioned above, Dell partners with FedEx to provide Dell Mail-Back Recycling. This may be a good option for rural computer users. Dell computers are always free to send in, and you can send in any other brand with the purchase of a new Dell product.

4. Apple – The Apple Recycling Program comes with a cool incentive: if Apple’s contractors decide that your device still has resale value, you’ll get an Apple Store gift card as thanks. Otherwise, your computer will be recycled for free, following standards that ban landfills, incinerators, prison labor, and overseas shipping. Since the program provides a free shipping label, this option also fits the needs of rural consumers. Just start by entering info on an accepted device – iPhone, iPad, Mac computer, or PC computer – to get a gift card quote.

[Image credits: Curtis Palmer, Beth KantorSimon Yeo]