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How to recycle your old computer

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These days, it often seems like technology becomes obsolete within days. This year’s powerhouse video card may be sufficient now, but they might not be able run next year’s killer apps with much in the way of gusto. So if you want to stay current, you’re going to end up having to upgrade your hardware or even your entire rig on a regular basis. But what to do with all your outdated components? You likely don’t have a lot of storage space, and it’s only a matter of time before all those old graphics cards and desktop towers start bursting out of your closets.

But you can’t just “throw it away.” Some of these parts are hazardous to the environment, and need to be disposed of properly. In fact, environmentalists often point to e-junk as one of the next big concerns for our planet. According to the EPA, discarded electronic waste now makes up more than 2 million tons of our total waste, and that number is only growing. Considering electronics often contain elements such as lead, mercury, nickel, and cadmium, e-waste has a noxious effect on the environment if disposed of improperly.

Here’s another thing to keep in mind: some e-waste actually is still useable. Rather than throwing away your old computer parts, the ecologically responsible thing is to recycle them. Thankfully, 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. You can convert an old internal hard drive into an external hard drive, for instance, with an external enclosure.

If you want to get really creative, you can do a lot more with old parts than simply find new ways to incorporate them into your computer. By combining old fans, for example, you can construct a makeshift air filter. You can even use hardware to make art pieces or DIY projects, such as digital pictures frames made from old computer monitors. With a little creativity and an aesthetic appreciation of wires and circuits, you can use these 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 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 we’ll elaborate on in a moment — 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’d rather wipe the data yourself, there is software available for that very purpose. Data-wiping software makes passes through your hard drive, overwriting every bit of data with zeroes and ones as it does.  The recommended standard for wiping data comes from the National Industrial Security Program Operating Manual, also known as DoD 5220.22-M. These guidelines require that software makes three passes through the hard drive in question, though if you’re feeling extra cautious, you can make even more.

While there are plenty of both free and premium programs that promise to wipe your drive, 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? Below are a few such pieces of software.

WipeDrive ($30)

WipeDrive is consumer software that’s designed to annihilate the information on your drive. It’s an affordable program, and developer White Canyon promises that the erased data is impossible to recover. You’ll also be able to wipe up to three different hard drives using a single license. You’ll need to purchase an additional license after that.

Active@ KillDisk (Free, or $50)

KillDisk gives you a number of data analysis tools that let you examine what’s on your hard drive and what exactly will be erased. The program is available as both a free and premium utility, but the free offering only makes one pass at your hard drive. As such, if you really want to be secure, the paid suite is more reliable.

Softpedia DP Wiper

DP Wiper will allow you to wipe your hard drive for free. As in all things commercial, however, you get what you pay for. If you truly want to be certain that your data is being properly obliterated, you might to invest some money in a more rigorous program. Also, Softpedia hasn’t updated the software since early-2014, and doesn’t plan to do so in the near future.

Donations

As previously 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 slim budgets, and donations of any sort can 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, primarily 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 to stay afloat. They will also 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) non-profit that provides job training for people with disabilities, Goodwill raises funds by selling used goods throughout the country. They have locations in many cities and will almost always take high-value items such as 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 products they want to dispose of. If you have a computer or parts that meet a certain set of criteria, these programs are a convenient and ecologically-sound way to get rid of your parts.

Apple

Apple’s recycling program encourages customers to send in any old Apple products that they want to recycle. The company’s website also provides prepaid shipping labels so you can mail them in at no cost. Furthermore, if they determine that your donation is still in good enough condition for them to refurbish, they’ll give you an Apple Store gift card. It’s no small chunk of change, either. Our 21.5-inch iMac from mid-2011, for instance, qualified for a $230 gift card. That’s a nice benefit.

Dell

Dell also provides free recycling services. The Dell Reconnect program is a partnership with Goodwill, one that allows you to bring in products that Dell will then either refurbish or recycle. They also have a mail-in program, and provide 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, and assist you in trading in your old Dell for a new one through an incentive program similar to that of Apple.

IBM

IBM will also recycle branded products on your behalf. IBM doesn’t erase the data on your hard drive for you, however, so make sure you take care of that if you use its service. Of course, this is not as important as it used to be, as IBM no longer makes consumer-grade hardware. Another thing to keep in mind is that IBM refuses to accept “cracked or broken monitor screens or any product showing visible leakage,” so you’ll need to find other ways to safely recycle products with those issues.

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 its own by allowing consumers to turn in used ink cartridges and other HP products. The company even provides credit toward the purchase of new HP devices, and assists you if you’d rather donate your equipment to a worthy cause.

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 to you, you can always look for someone to buy your hardware. Search for used computer dealers in your local 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 also provide a viable platform to connect you 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 this 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 and some enthusiast desktop components are known for it — but most depreciate quickly.

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