When the time comes to finally buy that shiny new computer you’ve been eying, you may find yourself wondering what to do with the old one. Many electronics retailers and computer manufacturers advertise trade-in programs, and many states have even prohibited computers from being dumped in landfills.
Computers can be recycled in a couple of ways, depending on the state of the machine. Giving old, working computers to friends and family members or donating them to nonprofit organizations not only keeps the computer entirely out of the waste stream, but it presents computer access to someone who might not otherwise be able to afford it. Non-working computers can be sent to recycling centers where they are dismantled and valuable components are recovered.
Donating a working computer can be a tax write-off, so if you’ve got a functional computer on your hands, there is an added monetary benefit to donation. However, if the computer really is at its end of life, it might be more trouble than it’s worth to a charity organization, which would then just have to seek a means of disposal. The Environmental Protection Agency suggests computers five years old or less and in working condition be donated; others should be recycled.
When your computer goes off for recycling, it doesn’t necessarily mean the world becomes a cleaner place. Some less responsible collection programs actually end up with computers being shipped off to developing nations where they become an even bigger health hazard. In some small provinces of China, locals pick through mountains of e-waste to recover valuable materials without proper protection, reports the Basel Action Network, a global watchdog organization that recently launched its own global e-waste recycler certification to recognize responsible recyclers.
Whatever method of recycling you’ve chosen for your computer, you’ll want to make sure your personal information has been wiped clean from its hard drive. Whether donated to another user or sent to a recycler for scrap, the data on your hard drive can be retrieved, and personal information such as financial records or social security numbers can be dangerous in the wrong hands.
Nearly 70 million computers were sitting in storage in 2007, according to the EPA. If even half were usable, nearly 35 million people or organizations could reap the benefit of a working computer. If the rest were recycled rather than being sent to landfill, the reduction in greenhouse gas emissions would be staggering–the EPA calculates that recycling just 1 million computers prevents the release of greenhouse gases equivalent to the emissions of 16,000 cars.