Spring Cleaning 2013 Part Two: Kill Your E-Clutter With Four Simple Methods

2013 03 21 23.40.401   Spring Cleaning 2013 Part Two: Kill Your E Clutter With Four Simple MethodsDiscarded 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.

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Recycle

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.

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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.

Donate

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.

Repurpose

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.

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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.

Resell

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).

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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:

  1. Create a catalog of the things you’re selling and start by selling the highest value item first.
  2. Emphasis on taking high quality pictures.
  3. Don’t get killed.

Conclusion

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.

Image Credits: Make it Bearable via MorgueFile.com; Flashing Money via MorgueFile.com; Cleaning via MorgueFile.com

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If you have any questions related to what's mentioned in the article or need help with any computer issue, ask it on MakeUseOf Answers—We and our community will be more than happy to help.

18 Comments -

Chris Marcoe

I’m, in the process of repurposing a 12 YO laptop right now. Putting Lubuntu on it and then making a proxy/VPN server, I think. though, I might change my mind and jsut use it as a media center.

Christine St Syr Griffin

all really great ideas, thanks for the heads up, christine

mintman

linux mint lxde is probably best to install on some old piece of crape lol

dragonmouth

To make sure that HDs are unreadable I use BFH drive wiper (preferably a 16 lb sledge) /grin/

In my experience, selling PCs and parts online yields very low returns. Many times shipping exceeds the price of the item. Garage and tag sales are even worse. Everybody wants the latest and the greatest for peanuts.

Kannon Yamada

:-)

Thanks DM! I am always looking for new ways to wipe my drives. This is not only the most effective, it’s also the fastest! And you get a good workout, too!

I also agree on selling PCs online. The chassis weight on older steel frame machines make sale outside of your own city far too expensive. And on Craigslist, the aggressive haggling makes it hard to get any value out of them. For the most part, I just like getting the machinery to people who are going to use it in a productive way.

Bearabull

I take the hard drives out and then take the rest to staples for recycling.

Col. Panek

That shoebox in your photos is my “good” computer at work! It runs great with Mint14 Cinnamon on it; quad core, 2 GB. I even edit movies on it.

All the over 7 year old machines I give away on Freecycle if anyone will take them (Puppy usually works on them), or the city recycles them and gets a few cents a pound.

Rama moorthy

My CPU case is 12 years old and SMPS is 5 years old .. I am still using it ..!
and I think I ll build a dual Core i7 processers in it .. small workstation..

Martin Ristovski

I still have my 8 years old PC running XP. Will installing Ubuntu or Linux Mint improve performace?

Kannon Yamada

XP is a very lightweight operating system. It also has great driver support, so most machines run it perfectly. However, on the other hand, it’s being phased out (in 2014, I think) entirely, so it will be an extremely insecure operating system after that point.

On the other hand, Linux distributions such as Mint or Ubuntu, have excellent security. After 2014, if you still have your computer, you may want to consider upgrading to one of the two distribution. In my experience, Most Ubuntu builds run close to as fast as XP. Mint, on the other hand, gets rave reviews from those preferring lightweight operating systems.

In my experience, Ubuntu is easier to setup and install, but – again – that’s just my opinion.

dragonmouth

“Mint, on the other hand, gets rave reviews from those preferring lightweight operating systems.”

Not to quibble but how can a distro that fits only on a DVD (almost 1.3 GB) be considered “lightweight”? It is also almost twice the size of Ubuntu.

Kannon Yamada

No, that’s not quibbling, you make a good point. Thanks for the correction – I’m not very familiar with Mint. However, I will pass the buck over to our comrades at Lifehacker, as they were the ones that I was quoting from memory.

Compared to Puppy or Slack, the last main release of Mint takes up a considerable amount of space and system resources. So, as you’ve rightly stated, “lightweight” isn’t the best choice of words. My apologies.

dragonmouth

No apologies needed. “Lightweight” is a relative term. In comparison to Damn Small or Puppy, Mint is a hulk but in comparison to Scientific or CentOS, it is downright Twiggy-like.

I like to start with antiX Core (136 MB) and then using APT I build my system by installing only the packages I need or want. antiX Core, while not as lightweight as Puppy, allows me a greater flexibility. Needless to say, antiX Core is not for newbies as it involves the use of command line.

Martin Ristovski

Thanks for the reply. I will consider installing Ubuntu on it after 2014.

Michael Heffner

I used to re-purpose them to things like web/file/media servers. Now that I’m going to be living off solar though, I’ve stripped most of them for the parts that I can use and scrapped the rest as junk metal.

Kannon Yamada

Wow! What sort of computers will you be using? All mobile devices? I’ve been working on building a desktop with really minimal power requirements. The monitor technology is sorta there. There are full color e-ink displays that you can buy in kit form. Right now you can get a Raspberry Pi-Pixel Qi system for $299 (quite a bit!). It’s very low wattage, but I can’t help but wish for some kind of screen bezel.

In regard to your other comment, I fully agree with you – the scam artists abound on eBay. And they treat sellers like criminals nowadays.

Another useful tip is that I take photos of all my serial numbers before shipping. In the event that someone swaps a broken device, I can always refer back to the serial number. I’m lucky, though, to have not yet been the target of a scam artist. I’m sorry for your troubles, by the way.

Michael Heffner

Also, eBay has become the largest rip-off for buying or selling used equipment. I recently sold a 700.00 recording microphone, the buyer claimed it was not as described, didn’t work, was banged up, but did not have shipping damage. eBay forced a refund, he sent back a mic that was the same but looked like it had been dropped from an airplane into the ocean. I knew it wasn’t mine because I mark all mine in a specific spot. I was out the shipping costs both ways, dinged with bad feedback, and had a broken mic.

Now I use it just to buy cheap cr@p from China that wal-mart doesn’t carry.

Tic Tac

I recycle just the batteries of the electronics, everything else I put on sale (: