Discarded desktop computers account for a large percentage of illegally disposed of e-waste. This situation occurred because as the mobile age displaced that of the PC, consumers went from laden desks to heavy pockets—unfortunately, the displaced weight had to go somewhere, which frequently meant the public dump.
Rather than pitching your things away illegally, those looking to get rid of their stockpiled electronics this spring should consider four free options: recycling, donating, repurposing, or selling.
For computers broken beyond repair, such as those suffering from an unknown, unbootable condition, consider recycling them. If you choose to recycle your computer, the first step you should consider is removing the hard drive. While some recycling operations will repurpose and reuse the computer, a disturbingly high number will illegally ship the unit overseas where it will be stripped down and disposed of in landfills. Many of the toxic chemicals contained in electronics, over time, leech out into the ground, creating a major health issue for those living near landfills.
The US EPA created a searchable database of locations that will recycle your disused electronics. However, make sure to either wipe the hard drive using at least a two-pass wipe. At best, use the infamous “Seven-Level Wipe”—if it’s good enough for the Bush Administration, it should be good enough for anyone.
It’s crucial to note that leaving an intact hard drive inside an older computer can cause disaster. Data thieves can steal information left behind, such as passwords and logins. Consequently, using good data destruction practices isn’t just a good idea—it’s an absolute necessity.
Donating remains the easiest method of disposing of an old computer. Many of the non-profits specializing in refurbishing derelicts will even take broken or unbootable machines. That’s mainly because even the most wrecked of computers contain parts worth cannibalizing, if fallen beyond repair.
An excellent place to donate your computer is Freecycle.com. Freecycle essentially offers a place where people can give their things away. It also ensures that the computer gets reused. Tim Brookes did a rundown on how to get started with Freecycle—it’s a highly recommended read, for those looking to give their things away.
For those seeking to find a donation location, Bakari Chavanu covered five different organizations, some commercial some non-profit, that will help us dispose of our unwanted electronics.
And, as with recycling, remember to wipe or remove your hard drive before handing it over. It would also help to ask the charity in question about their data disposal policies. Some might actually use multi-pass wipe methods—in which case, if you trust them, you may simply just hand over the computer. On the other hand, if their policies fall on the lax side, consider doing the wipe yourself. In particular, look at “Low-level formatting“.
For mobile devices, James Bruce did a fantastic write-up on how you can use PC software such as CCleaner to mostly (but not completely!) wipe the flash memory on an Android phone or tablet.
Danny Stieben wrote an excellent account of how to wipe your data using Linux. Linux is so potent a drive wiper that, I suggest using a bootable Linux distribution, such as Parted Magic, over any Windows based alternative, to wipe your drives. For the curious, use Justin Pot’s intro to Parted Magic for more information.
Also, it pays to remember that donating provides you with a tax deduction, so remember to get a receipt.
My personal favorite method of getting rid of unwanted electronics: “Repurposing” takes an obsolete machine and uses it in a way that keeps it useful. Some of the most popular examples include:
- File or home server: A file server acts as a network drive, depending on your configuration. A home server handles a much wider variety of tasks, again, dependent on your configuration. I highly advise Tim Brooks’s fantastic article on how to use Ubuntu on an older PC. It’s a great starting point for those seeking to setup an Ubuntu machine (although it’s a very easy process). Also, there’s Amahi Home Server, which James has elaborated on. My personal preference is for using Ubuntu’s 12 LTS build as a barebones file server with a RAIDZ implementation.
- Install Linux: Linux runs on a lot of older computers, without any problem. While Ubuntu may have relatively steep requirements, it runs remarkably better than Windows 7 or Vista on XP-era computers. Try reading the MakeUseOf guide on this subject.
- Home theater/streaming media PC: Playing video or streaming media requires very little hardware power for non-HD content. You can easily repurpose an older machine to play NetFlix, Hulu or some other online video service. Also, you can throw in some video playing services. There’s some discussion on this subject in the Answers section.
- Cannibalize it for parts: Some of the parts on your older computer could fit into a new PC. In particular, graphics cards and wireless adapters tend to have the greatest applicability on newer computer. Also, cases tend to be infinitely reusable. The current ATX standard has been around for well over a decade.
While an older computer may not make for a great gaming machine, it does offer a great deal of value as a special-purpose device such as an HTPC or media server. Repurposing a computer for such a purpose doesn’t take much effort—just a Linux or Windows distribution and a little bit of technical know-how.
Finally, if you don’t want to recycle, repurpose or donate your old computer, consider selling it. The casual computer user might find it surprising that even broken computers—particularly laptops—can fetch a surprising amount of money on eBay. The trick is in correctly describing the issue that the computer has when creating the listing.
In particular, make detailed notes of all visual and audio indicators of any problems, such as beeping and the information displayed on the screen, such as blue screen crashes. This is the precise kind of information that a potential buyer will need to know since he probably intends on either repairing the machine or “parting it out” (cannibalizing it for spare components).
However, eBay’s fees will soon rise to 10% for sellers, so consider selling sooner rather than later. I recently wrote an article on how you might get rid of the junk this spring by selling it. A quick summary of my article:
- Create a catalog of the things you’re selling and start by selling the highest value item first.
- Emphasis on taking high quality pictures.
- Don’t get killed.
Getting rid of electronics can be a great deal of work. Recycling centers, depending on your state/province/fiefdom, have differing laws for the manner in which you might dispose of potentially hazardous waste. Some centers will charge if your waste exceeds a certain amount.
Personally, I’ve gotten more reward for either selling disused electronics online or repurposing them. However, it’s important to mention that donating computers to worthy charities is also a great use of a computer. If the alternative means recycling them, the electronics could be illegally exported to another country or it could simply end up in a dump.