What to Do With Old Computers: 3 Responsible Options

Remember how good it felt the last time you hauled your clunky, old computer and monitor out to the curb and went back inside to turn on your shiny, new PC? Well, as it turns out, that quick trip to the trash wasn't the best idea you ever had.

A growing number of advocacy groups are working to educate the public on what to do with old computers and why they may want to take more precautions when disposing of them.

What many of us don't realize is that our electronics and other household electrical gadgets are potential Molotov cocktails for the environment, filled with unsavory heavy metals and toxic chemicals. These hazardous components can leach into the soil, causing significant harm to both human health and wildlife.

So before you toss out that Macbook Pro or Dell PC, let's explore some environmentally friendly and secure disposal methods.

How to Prepare Your Old Computer for Disposal

Your new computer has arrived, and you're ready to get rid of your unwanted computer or laptop using one of the proper disposal methods. But before you haul it to your car, it's crucial to ensure that all your personal data is securely backed up and erased to prevent any potential misuse. Here’s how.

Backup Your Data

Use an external storage device or a USB flash drive to save important files. Depending on the amount of data you've accrued, you may have to shell out a bit of cash for a hard drive with enough storage space. Alternatively, use cloud storage services like Google Drive or Dropbox, which offer easy access and backup solutions.

If you’re migrating to a new computer, use data transfer tools to move your personal files and saved passwords directly to the new device.

Wipe Your Data

Use the built-in factory reset option in your operating system to erase all data, including your browsing history. On Windows, go to Settings > Update & Security > Recovery > Reset this PC. On macOS, use Disk Utility to erase the hard drive and reinstall macOS.

For a more secure wipe, use data destruction software like DBAN (Darik's Boot and Nuke) to ensure all the data is irretrievably deleted.

Remove and Destroy Hard Drive

If you want extra security, physically remove the hard drive from your old laptop or computer. If you can't find the computer manual, consult the manufacturer's website, which likely has detailed instructions for this process.

Destroy the hard drive by using a hammer, drilling holes through it or taking it to a professional shredding service to ensure data cannot be recovered.

3 Best Ways to Dispose of Your Old Computer

Once your data is secure and the hard drive is wiped or destroyed, you can turn to one of these ways to responsibly dispose of your old computer.

1. Trade-in Programs

Stores like Best Buy and Amazon offer trade-in programs where you can exchange your old computer for store credit or discounts on new purchases.

Some computer manufacturers (Apple, Dell, HP) have trade-in programs for recycling old devices that provide credit toward the purchase of new devices. Check their websites for details.

2. Donate

Organizations like Goodwill, Salvation Army and Computers with Causes accept working computers and refurbish them for those in need. Many educational institutions and libraries can benefit from donated computers.

You can also check with local schools or community centers. Groups like World Computer Exchange provide donated computers to developing countries, supporting education and community development.

3. Recycle

Use platforms like e-Stewards or R2 certified recyclers to find a certified e-waste recycling organizations. These centers follow strict guidelines to safely recycle electronics.

Check with your local waste management services or municipality for electronic recycling programs. Many communities have designated drop-off points or dedicated e-waste collection events held on a monthly or quarterly basis.

The Rundown on E-Waste

The technical term for all this high-tech garbage is electronic waste (e-waste). This refers to all discarded products that use electricity — including computers, mobile phones, televisions, kitchen appliances and more — which can contain hazardous materials that need proper handling and recycling to mitigate environmental and health risks.

With high technology turnover and obsolescence rates, it is projected that the global generation of electronic waste (e-waste) will reach 82.3 million tons (74.7 million metric tons) by 2030.

In the United States alone, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimated that 20 million computers were thrown out in 1998. By 2005, this number had more than doubled, with approximately 130,000 computers being discarded daily.

In 2019, the U.S. produced 7.6 million tons (6.9 million metric tons) of e-waste. This figure includes a significant number of discarded computers and other electronic devices​

Where Do Old Electronics Go to Retire?

Between 2003 and 2005, up to 85 percent of disposed electronics in the U.S. were sent straight to landfills or incinerators​ (ITU)​. As of 2022, globally, around 62 million tons (approximately 68.3 million metric tons) of e-waste were generated (UNITAR)​, and only 22.3 percent of it was formally collected and properly recycled​ (ITU)​.

Some might wonder, "Why not just throw my old computer in the landfill?" The answer lies in the potentially lethal chemical mix inside these devices, which can seriously harm the environment.

Lead and Other Toxic Substances

A typical piece of electronic equipment, especially a PC with many circuit boards, may contain up to 8 pounds (3.6 kilograms) of lead, along with mercury, arsenic, cadmium, beryllium and other toxic chemicals​ (ITU)​. There are also poisonous, flame-retardant chemicals used in most electronics.

These hazardous substances can cause serious health problems when exposure occurs in large doses. Even small doses over long periods, such as elevated levels of toxic chemicals in water supplies or inhalation by factory workers, can have harmful effects.

In the U.S., e-waste accounts for about 2 percent of total trash but contributes roughly 70 percent of the toxic heavy metals — including a significant portion of the lead content — found in landfills. While most landfills are designed to contain soil and water contamination, the presence of so much hazardous waste is concerning.

Even if you try to recycle your old computer properly, there's a 50 to 80 percent chance it didn't end up where you thought it would​. And it is often processed under unsafe conditions, leading to environmental and health hazards​.

This highlights the need for more effective and transparent recycling processes to ensure e-waste is managed responsibly.

Recycling Old Computers

Recycling old computers can be effective when people follow proper channels. As recycling trends grow, the market responds. Manufacturers are increasingly taking back old electronics from customers for recycling or refurbishing.

Some companies voluntarily improve their products to contain fewer toxins, while others simply comply with government regulations. For example, Apple has committed to using recycled materials and reducing hazardous substances in their products.

Meanwhile, legitimate e-waste recycling centers with on-site facilities, such as those operated by ERI (Electronic Recyclers International) and Sims Recycling Solutions, have emerged in various cities, ensuring proper and safe recycling practices.

However, many so-called recycling operations are merely collection points. Collected devices and parts are often sold to scrap brokers, who ship this cargo to developing nations for deconstruction.

Exploitation in Developing Nations

Why transport e-waste instead of recycling it locally? It all comes down to money: The cost of shipping e-waste is offset by the cheap labor available at its destination.

Recycling electronics in nations like China, India, Pakistan, Ghana, Nigeria and Côte d'Ivoire (Ivory Coast) costs a fraction of what it would in other places. Occupational and environmental laws are typically weaker in these regions, contributing to lower costs.

Once e-waste arrives in these regions, laborers earn incomes by recycling the discarded electronics for their core components. The process is hazardous. In some communities, people of all ages dismantle e-waste daily, exposing themselves to toxic materials. Laborers often smash and unhinge devices, spraying toxic shrapnel on the ground where people walk barefoot.

Fire is commonly used to burn away flame-retardant materials from copper wiring, releasing harmful soot and smoke. It also melts metal off circuit boards, allowing workers to harvest gold, lead, copper and other valuable materials from the burned plastic remnants.

In 2019, approximately 59.1 million tons (53.6 million metric tonnes) of e-waste were generated globally, but only about 17.4 percent was formally collected and recycled. This highlights the need for more effective and transparent recycling processes to manage e-waste responsibly.

Acid Baths

Another concerning disposal method is an acid bath. Soaking the circuit boards in powerful solutions of nitric and hydrochloric acids (highly corrosive to human tissue in strong concentrations) can free the metals from their etched electronic pathways. This process is often done by hand. After that, the recovered resources are sold and re-enter the manufacturing cycle.

The acid, hazardous waste and worthless byproducts are often burned or find their way into local water sources, often by outright dumping. Tests performed on the air and soil that surrounds large recycling operations show a high level of pollution.

Researchers are studying how this e-waste recycling affects the local populations. Preliminary reports are expected to show negative results.

Now you have a better idea of the sad journey your computer may have taken after it left the warmth and security of your home office. Let's look at how you can properly dispose of your next outdated device.

This article was updated in conjunction with AI technology, then fact-checked and edited by a HowStuffWorks editor.

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Original article: What to Do With Old Computers: 3 Responsible Options

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