It often seems like even the best new technology becomes obsolete within days. This year’s powerhouse video card may be sufficient now, but there’s always something better just over the horizon. 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 But what should you do with all your outdated components?
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: Globally, e-waste has increased by 21% in the last five years to around 59 million tons annually, and less than 20% is recycled properly.
Some e-waste actually is still usable, too. 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 and free up space in your home.
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 do-it-yourself (DIY) projects, such as digital picture 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.
Recycling centers and local recycling days
If you just want to throw away your old electronics, make sure you send them to an official recycling center that will properly dispose of them. Search your local area to see what recycling centers accept electronics, or see if you can save a little time by heading to All Green Recycling and plugging in your zip code to see if they can locate any drop-off points.
Your city’s government website can also be a help: Many cities have a special day of the year where they allow everyone to put old electronics on the curb for proper collection and recycling. If nothing else, they often have pages about local centers and recycling practices that you should know about.
Wiping and destroying 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’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. We recommend starting with WipeDrive, which offers a free home version you can download with a code and an impressive set of data wiping features for basically every type of software on your computer.
However, modern solid-stated drives are very durable and excellent at storing information that doesn’t require moving parts to access, which means, with the right equipment, wiping isn’t enough on its own to protect data completely. But destroying these hard drives can be difficult — simply smashing it with a hammer still leaves lots of data accessible.
This is why the latest hard drive disposal techniques shred them into small pieces so nothing can ever be accessed again. A variety of shredding services offer this guaranteed method of protection, like Shred-it and Sims Recycling. This is especially important for businesses since current privacy regulations frequently require shredding hard drives, and specialized services can provide necessary documentation that the drives were destroyed. However, individual consumers would also be wise to look for shredding services in their area.
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) nonprofit 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.
Brand trade-in and 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 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. These links will help, and you may want to consult the full list that the EPA keeps as well.
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.
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. 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 will recycle branded products on your behalf and can recommend the best way to get rid of e-waste by state. 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. 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.
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 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. Pawnshops 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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