Recycle old computers and computer parts – safely!

You’ve noticed that your phone is slowing down, or you wish your old computer had more bells and whistles. So you start looking around for a new device – but what do you do with the old one? Nowadays there are a lot of options for recycling hardware and disposing of e-waste. Just make sure you take the right steps to backup and wipe your data first!
Map of world made of green plants on beige background with recycling symbols
Donating or recycling used hardware is the planet-friendly option

What is the problem with e-waste?

On a global scale, more than 50 million metric tons of electronics are discarded every year, with seven million coming from the United States alone. This e-waste can do a lot of damage to the environment if it is not handled correctly. Many electronic devices contain heavy metals and other hazardous materials that can cause air pollution if incinerated or seep into the groundwater if buried in landfills. As a result, it can even be illegal in some places to simply toss used devices into the trash. On the other hand, many electronics contain valuable materials, including precious metals, that could be re-used. Despite all these considerations, however, it is estimated that less than 20 percent of e-waste is properly recycled.

Fortunately, many electronic manufacturers and retailers have programs to help you dispose of your old hardware. Even better, some devices can be donated and refurbished, giving them a new lease on life and cutting down on waste. But be careful: in the case of computers, smartphones or anything else that contains your personal data, it is important to carefully erase it all before taking further steps.

Where to donate or recycle computers

Companies and governments alike are joining the push to recycle e-waste. For example in the United States, Apple, Dell, HP and Best Buy all have programs allowing customers to send in or drop off old products for recycling or refurbishing. Simply visit the website of your device manufacturer for the specifics.

If you think your computer still has some life in it, you could consider donating it to charity. In the United States, Goodwill and the Salvation Army accept donations of all sorts of used electronic devices. Local schools or senior centers may also accept donations of computer equipment that still works. There are also national organizations like Tech for Troops or NCADV that accept donations – if there is a cause you are interested in supporting, simply check their website for their donation policy.

How to dispose of e-waste locally

You can also perform a web search to find local third-party electronics refurbishers and recyclerswho will accept your e-waste for recycling. It is worth taking the time to find a certified electronics recycler – this ensures that the organization meets environmental standards for reuse and recycling, not to mention good data security and worker health practices. Two such certifications are the Responsible Recycling Standard for Electronic Recyclers (R2) and E-Stewards-Standard for Responsible Recycling and Reuse of Electronic Equipment (e-Stewards).

Protect your data: Steps to take before you recycle computers and hardware

Think of all the sensitive or private information that is stored on your device’s hard drive: passwords, personal photos, important documents, online banking information, addresses, phone numbers…  Whether you are donating your computer or sending it off to have the computer parts recycled, you should take the time to make sure it has been completely wiped clean of all your information.

The first step is to save all files that you want to keep. Use whatever archiving method you prefer – an external hard drive, USB flash drives, or cloud storage, for instance. Uploading your data to the cloud can be a particularly convenient solution – it’s easy to download whatever you want on your new computer or phone directly to that device, and you can leave duplicate copies in the cloud as a secure backup.

Once you are sure you have saved everything you want to keep from your old computer, it’s time to delete all the data – a multi-step process known as wiping your hard drive:
  1. Delete all your files. If you have sensitive documents like your tax information on your computer, consider using specialized software that meets standards for secure deletion, like File Shredder.
  2. Uninstall all software. Before uninstalling, you should also unlink any programs that automatically sync with online cloud backups and deauthorize your old computer from any programs that limit the number of computers you can install the software on.
  3. Clear your internet browser(s). This means deleting all browsing history, saved passwords and account information. The exact process will differ depending on the browser in question, but in most cases you should go to Privacy & Security in your browser Settings and follow the instructions there.
  4. Restore device to factory settings. A factory reset will completely wipe your device’s hard drive, so be very sure you have everything you need before you take this final step. Again, the exact process will vary by device, but in most cases you need the computer or phone’s Settings menu. For example, on a Windows computer go to Settings > Update and Recovery.

If you’d like a detailed guide to erasing the information on your hard drive, see our explainer: How to wipe a hard drive so your data is truly erased

E-waste FAQ

What electronic waste cannot be recycled?

Professional electronic recycling centers will accept most electronic equipment, but you may run into a few exceptions. One example is LCD screens (TVs or computer screens) manufactured before 2009. This is because the displays contain mercury, which is hazardous to handle. Old cathode ray tube televisions are similarly difficult because they contain lead.

What recyclable materials can be extracted from e-waste?

E-waste can be a treasure trove because many devices contain valuable and scarce materials. This includes precious metals such as gold, silver, platinum, and copper and rare materials such as cobalt and indium. However, it usually also contains more mundane recyclable materials such as aluminum, iron, glass and plastic.

Why is most electronic waste not recycled?

In a nutshell, because it’s difficult! Devices have to be disassembled before recycling, and every single model and device needs to be taken apart differently. So workers may have problems correctly recycling many devices. In addition, there might be hazardous chemicals that can endanger their health. And finally, many places lack the infrastructure for e-waste recycling, starting with collection points for people to take their old devices.

Good to know: and e-waste recycling is committed to environmental sustainability, and all used hardware in our offices is donated or recycled. In 2022, together with our parent company United Internet we were able to reduce CO2 emissions by 584 metric tons through the responsible recycling of old hardware.

We hope you found this information useful! We look forward to your feedback below.

This article first appeared on Oct. 4, 2021 and was updated on Aug. 31, 2023.

Images: 1&1/Shutterstock

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