Choices: Sell, Donate, Recycle — or Re-use?
There are three basic options for disposing of old computers — sell, donate, or recycle — and one that is slightly more involved: re-use.
Rules of Thumb
- If it’s under 3 years old, consider selling;
- If it’s up to 5 years old, consider donating;
- For older equipment, recycling is probably your most realistic option.
Computers do contain toxic material (see Electronic Waste), so please, don’t just dump them!
Delete Your Data!
Before doing anything, though, you need to make sure your data is removed from the machine. It’s ironic — not to mention annoying — that hard drives are fragile enough to have spawned a whole back up industry (see our Backup ABC’s), and yet it’s virtually impossible to be sure your data is beyond recovery (see, for example, How to Recover Almost Anything from PC Magazine, or Computer First Aid by Cedric Shock). The good news is, though, that unless you’re guarding state secrets or a thief might have reason to think your data is valuable, almost any effort to delete data makes it more trouble than it’s worth to recover. If you’re donating or recycling a machine, the recipient may offer to remove your data for you, saving you a step (as long as you feel they can be trusted to do as they say). If you’re stuck with the job yourself, however, read on.
For a computer or hard drive that no longer works: Remove the hard drive and physically destroy it. Hammers, drills and blow torches are just a few of the creative ways people have gone about this task. Popular Mechanics offers some amusing as well as useful tips in How to Absolutely, Positively Destroy Your Data (Feb. 2007); Network World adds a military angle in How to destroy a hard drive in five seconds (Jun. 2006).
For a computer that’s still working: If you’re planning to recycle the computer, you can either destroy the hard drive (see above) or wipe the whole disk clean using one of several free tools — Darik’s Boot And Nuke is a popular and fairly easy option, Active@Killdisk offers another, newer option that may be more user-friendly.
If you’re going to sell or donate the computer, your goal may be to delete all of your personal data while leaving the operating system intact. Check the recipient’s needs or preferences: if the recipient plans to reinstall the operating system anyway, there’s no need for you to try to preserve it. If you do want or need to preserve the operating system, however, there are many free tools available to help: while all promise to delete files beyond recovery, some newer programs also offer help in tracking down hidden personal data. For example, File Shredder and Eraser are long-standing file deletion programs; Wipe is a newer program that promises to help root out hidden data, too.
Note: some newer computers come with a type of fast hard drive called an “SSD.” Although SSDs are otherwise the best thing since sliced bread, it is not possible to dependably erase personal data on an SSD without wiping or destroying the whole disk. And if you do want to wipe an SSD, normal disk-wiping tools are not enough by themselves. Instead, you should encrypt the contents of the entire disk using a full-disk encryption program likeVeraCrypt and a really good, long, long password, destroy and forget the password, and then use a disk-wiping tool like the ones mentioned above. See this paper for an academic discussion. Windows Secrets has also published a more user-friendly description of the technique here.
For anyone with a little time and interest, it’s not hard to turn an old PC into something useful; for example, we explain how to create a “kitchen computer” in Give An Old Computer a New Life. For more ideas, try Things to do with an old computer from MAKE magazine.
There’s a lively market in used computer equipment; eBay and Craigslist are the best known options, but there are also a number of companies that deal specifically in used electronics. And many companies that sell computers and electronics have trade-in or buy back programs as well as recycling services.
Second-hand Electronics Companies
- How to Sell Computers On Craigslist (eHow)
- Turn your used equipment into cash (eBay)
- Computers & Networking Selling Guide (eBay)
Donate (listed alphabetically)
As computers have become cheaper and more widely used, donations of older computers have surged, so much so that it has become relatively difficult to find anyone who is willing to accept a used computer. If your computer is more than 4-5 years old, it is likely that no one will want it. If the computer is relatively new, and in good shape, you can try some of the following. No promises! See also Tech Soup’s Ten Tips for Donating a Computer.
- Second Life Computers — This non-profit Newton, Mass. organization accepts old computers for refurbishment and eventual sale. [update: not accepting donations as of 7/27/13]
- The Boston Chapter of World Computer Exchange — “World Computer Exchange is a global education & environment nonprofit that helps connect youth in 67 developing countries to the skills, opportunities & understanding of the Internet while keeping working computers out of landfills.”
- Cristina Foundation — “The National Cristina Foundation provides computer technology and solutions to give people with disabilities, students at risk and economically disadvantaged persons the opportunity, through training, to lead more independent and productive lives.” The Foundation tries to match your donation to the needs of a local organization, and coordinates pick-up or drop-off.
- E-Cycling Central — Lists both recycling and refurbishment/donation programs, with an increasing emphasis on the former. “[I]t is important to remember that older electronics units and devices may not have reached the end of their useful life…many televisions, computers, computer monitors, mobile phones and other electronics … can be recycled, refurbished or donated to schools and charities. Numerous EIA member companies have created and are participating in programs … [to] help place your electronics products into the recycling stream by refurbishing the device or giving it back to the community, either to schools, charities, economically disadvantaged or disabled citizens of your community.”
- Mass DEP: Electronics Recycling
- Mass DEP: Computer Monitor & TV Recycling Options for Residents & Small Businesses
- E-Cycling Central — Massachusetts Recyclers
- U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA): eCycling
- Electronics TakeBack Coalition
- Earth 911 — Electronics
- GreenerGadgets (from the Consumer Electronics Association)—”Through responsible use, reuse and recycling of electronics, the consumer electronics industry and consumers can protect and preserve the environment—together.”
- Basel Action Network – BAN — “BAN is the world’s only organization focused on confronting the global environmental injustice and economic inefficiency of toxic trade (toxic wastes, products and technologies) and its devastating impacts.” Find an e-Steward Recycling Company —”e-Stewards are North America’s most Responsible Recyclers. They have been qualified by our staff as recyclers that uphold the Electronics Recycler’s Pledge of True Stewardship — the World’s Most Rigorous Environmental and Social Justice Criteria for Recycling e-Waste!”