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How to recycle your old computer

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Technology becomes obsolete so quickly these days. This year’s powerhouse video card may be insufficient to run next year’s killer apps at the best settings. If one wants to stay current with computer tech, it is necessary to replace parts or even your entire computer semi-frequently. Of course, that leaves the significant problem of what to do with old computer parts. Most people have a finite amount of storage space, and it’s only a matter of time before you open a closet and find yourself buried beneath an avalanche of démodé hardware.

The personal toll of amassing old computer parts can be hefty, but if they are disposed of irresponsibly there is a drastic environmental cost as well. Discarded electronics, commonly referred to as “e-waste,” is one of the most pressing environmental concerns of the 21st century. The EPA reports that in 2013 discarded electronics accounted for 1.87 million tons of waste. As if the sheer mass of e-waste wasn’t terrible enough, the chemical structure of electronics makes them especially hazardous. Electronics often contain elements such as lead, mercury, nickel, and cadmium, which can have a noxious effect on the environment if disposed of improperly.

One of the dirty secrets about e-waste is that it needn’t even be considered waste; many pieces of hardware that are thrown away, destined for landfills, are actually still usable. Rather than throwing away your old computer parts, the ecologically responsible thing is to recycle them. There are quite a few ways to go about recycling old hardware, all of which can help stymie the growing problem of e-waste.

Old hardware, new uses

While you may want to keep your computer armed with only the most powerful hardware, there’s no reason you can’t make use of parts you replace. Obsolete is not the same as broken, and with a little ingenuity you can get a lot of mileage out of spare parts. If you find yourself with a lot of parts on hand, you can cobble together a basic computer to use as a home file server. A functional home server doesn’t require high-end parts, and it will provide you with abundant file space to store any data you have. It is possible to find some uses for nearly any individual piece of hardware too. Case in point: you can convert an old internal hard drive into an external hard drive by simply building a case for it.

If you want to get really creative, you can do a lot more with old parts than simply finding new ways to incorporate them into your computer. For example, by combining old fans you can construct a makeshift air filter. Getting even crazier, you can use hardware to make art pieces or DIY projects, such as converting an old monitor into a digital picture frame. With a little creativity and an aesthetic appreciation of wires and circuits, you can use old parts to create furniture and paraphernalia with a cyberpunk style.

A lamp made from an old iMac

A lamp made from an old iMac

Of course, not everyone will have the time or desire to use their old computer parts for arts and crafts. That’s not a problem, though, as there are plenty of people and organizations that can find a use for them. Before handing your computer off to someone else, however, there is an issue of security to deal with.

Wiping your hard drive

If you choose to release your hardware into the wild, it is crucial to wipe your hard drive first. Chances are that aside from whatever movies, music, games, and pictures you have on there, there is also some sensitive personal information.

Don’t be tempted to think that simply tossing files in your computer’s trash bin will suffice. Traces of data will still be left on the hard drive and savvy users will be able to recover that information. Identity theft is a profitable and sadly common enterprise, so don’t run the risk of someone scavenging your important data.

If you have a Windows PC, there are Microsoft-certified refurbishers who can wipe your hard drive of any personal info. These are professionals and, being approved by Microsoft, you can trust them to do the job and not to steal any of your data.

If you have a Mac, Apple’s recycling program (which will be elaborated on later) includes hard drive wiping. After you hand your old Mac over to them, Apple technicians will give it a thorough scrubbing before passing it along.

If you would rather handle wiping the data yourself, there is software available for that purpose. Data wiping software works by making passes through your hard drive, overwriting every bit of data with zeroes and ones.  The recommended standard for wiping data comes from the National Industrial Security Program Operating Manual, also known as DoD 5220.22-M. DoD guidelines require that software makes three passes through the hard drive, though if you are feeling extra cautious you can go even higher.

While there are plenty of programs that promise to wipe your drive clean, some of which are even free, they vary in terms of actual performance and security. Use your best judgment when trying any such program, and keep the DoD standards in mind. After all, if you can’t trust the government to destroy data, who can you trust?

WipeDrive ($39.95)

WipeDrive is consumer software that will annihilate the information on your drive. It’s an affordable program, and developer White Canyon promises that data erased is impossible to recover. The license only covers three hard drive wipes, so keep that in mind if you find yourself going through hard drives at an alarming rate.

Active@ KillDisk (Free, or $49.95)

KillDisk gives you a number of data analysis tools to let you examine what is on your hard drive and what exactly will be erased. The program comes in both free and paid versions, and the free version only makes one pass at your hard drive. As such, if you really want to be secure, the paid software suite is more reliable.

Softpedia DP Wiper (Free)

If you are on a budget, Softpedia DP Wiper will allow you to wipe your hard drive at the low cost of free. As in all things commercial, you get what you pay for. If you want to be truly certain that your data is being properly obliterated, you might to invest some money in a more rigorous program.

With your personal data having been erased from existence, you can now relieve yourself of excess computer parts without fear.

Donations

As mentioned, much of the hardware that is thrown away is still usable. If you can’t find a way to re-purpose computer parts for your own use (or if you simply don’t have the time to go about it) why not give them to someone who can? Many nonprofits and education programs run on very slim budgets, and donations of any sort will ease their burdens. Given the importance of computers in running any modern organization, donations of computers and hardware can be a godsend.

If you know of any local nonprofits in your area, try calling them to inquire if they need or can make use of your old hardware. Even if you aren’t familiar with your local nonprofits, there are resources available to help put you in touch with them. The National Cristina Foundation is an organization that directs computer donations to various nonprofits, usually those with a focus on education or workforce development.

Canadians who wish to donate their computers can turn to the Electronic Recycling Association. The ERA maintains drop-off locations in several major cities in Canada. They work with many nonprofits throughout the country, providing them with computers and other hardware they need. And of course, they will wipe the data from any hard drives you donate.

Another straightforward option is to bring your computer parts to Goodwill. A national 501(c)(3) group that provides job training for people with disabilities, Goodwill raises funds by selling used goods in their chain of stores. They have locations in many cities and will almost always take high-value items like computers and electronics.

Branded recycling programs

Major computer manufacturers and retailers are generally aware of the damage e-waste causes to the environment (and perhaps their reputations). As such, many of them have set up recycling programs where people can bring in appropriate products they want to dispose of. If you have a computer or parts that meet the criteria, these programs are a fast and easy way to get rid of your parts in an ecologically sound way.

Apple

Apple’s recycling program encourages customers to send in any old Apple products that they want to recycle. Their website provides prepaid shipping labels so you can mail them in at no cost. Moreover, if they determine that your donation is still in good enough condition for them to refurbish, they will give you an Apple Store gift card. Whatever they do with your old Mac, you won’t need to worry about your hard drive falling into the wrong hands, as Apple technicians will thoroughly wipe your drives.

Dell

Dell also provides free recycling services. The Dell Reconnect program is a partnership with Goodwill, allowing you to bring in products that Dell will then either refurbish or recycle. They also have a mail-in program, providing prepaid labels so you can mail your computer to them for free. Dell will also recycle products from other manufacturers if you purchase a new Dell computer.

IBM

IBM will also recycle branded products for you. It should be noted that IBM will not handle erasing data on your hard drive for you, so make certain you take care of that if you use their service. Of course, this is not as important as it used to be, as IBM no longer makes consumer-grade hardware.

HP

Ink cartridges are a particularly virulent form of waste, quickly amassing in landfills and seeping ink into the earth. HP hopes to alleviate this with a recycling plan of their own, allowing consumers to turn in used ink cartridges and other HP products. They even provide credit towards the purchase of new HP devices.

Sell your old hardware

If you are determined to get something of value out of your old computer, and if the store credit offered by some of the branded recycling programs doesn’t seem sufficient for you, you can always look for someone to buy your hardware. Search for used computer dealers in your area and see if they will offer what seems like a fair price to you. Pawn shops are one option, though you may not get very much out of them. Online services like eBay and Craigslist provide a platform to connect with potential buyers; of course, they require legwork on the part of the seller.

If you do decide to go the commercial route, keep in mind you probably won’t receive a big payday. As mentioned at the top of the article, computer parts become obsolete quickly, and the only thing that depreciates faster than their utility is their resale value. Some systems do retain value – Mac laptops are known for it – but most depreciate quickly.

hans engbers
Hans Engbers/Shutterstock

Consumer culture has produced wonders. The mass urge to spend and acquire, and the desire of businesses to satisfy that urge; these are the twin forces that have driven the rapid advances in technology over the last few decades. That unceasing competition to put out the most advanced tech has brought us microchips that can outprocess entire math departments, and boxes that can hold the collective knowledge of humanity yet fit in the grasp of a human hand.

Such progress comes with danger, however. The razor hidden in this particular apple is the swelling mass of waste that consumption breeds. For as eager as we are to acquire goods we are just as quick to toss them away. Consumerism is about satisfying desires, and it pays little heed to responsibilities. As waste continues to fester, even small efforts, like donating computer parts, can help stem the tide.