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How to Dispose of Old Computers Responsibly

We all go through several computers and other electronic devices over a lifetime and getting rid of them is not as easy as throwing them in the trash.  Today we take a look at how to dispose of your old machines in a secure and environmentally responsible manner.

With the new Windows operating system around the corner and an abundance of cheap computers on the market, you may find yourself asking what to do with your old PC and components.  We will take a look at how to securely destroy private data on your old hard drive, ideas for repurposing, and how to get rid of them in a way that is friendly to the environment.

Ensure Data Is Destroyed

The biggest concern when getting rid of your old computer is ensuring important and private data doesn’t get into the wrong hands.  Simply deleting your files and emptying the Recycle Bin is not enough.  Darik’s Boot and Nuke (DBAN) is the most popular free utility that will overwrite each sector on your hard drive making data unrecoverable.  It is very secure and will deter people that use hard disk forensic analysis from retrieving your data.  Burn the ISO image to disk and boot from it to get the main menu.  From here you can choose the method you want to use to wipe the disk. 

dban 

Using the advanced methods takes a considerable amount of time and unless you have government secrets or the KFC secret recipe on the drive, you might want to choose a quicker method.  You can get a list of other methods by hitting F3 at the main menu.  The quick method will overwrite all sectors with 0’s in one pass and might be the easiest method for home users.  However, some with the right equipment could possibly still recover data from this method and is considered the least secure.

dban2 

Using a degausser to wipe a hard drive clean is aimed at businesses and corporations that need to wipe out several at a time.  A degausser magnetically erases all of the information on the disk platters.  Buying a degausser is not very practical for home users as they cost around $2,000 and higher.  You can pay for services from companies like Garner and SEM  that will degauss and destroy your hard drive completely.

sshot-2009-08-24-[19-03-06] 

Another cheap and effective (and much more fun) method is taking an axe or hammer to the hard drive and smashing it into bits. Of course make sure you wear protective goggles and other protective clothing when smashing it up.

smash 

What Happens to E-Waste?

Even with best intentions and bringing your old computers and other electronic devices to recycling centers, it’s shocking how much is dumped in developing nations.  Computers and monitors contain toxic levels of mercury, lead, cadmium, arsenic, and beryllium which are very unfriendly substances to the environment. PBS and 60 Minutes have done stories where they track items from US recycling centers to dumping areas in China and Ghana.  

A digital dumping ground in Ghana.

ewaste

From a 60 minutes story, a dumping ground in China where workers are using a vat of acid to extract gold components.

sshot-2009-08-24-[15-22-19] 

It is not all gloom and doom when it comes to disposing of old computers and other electronics though.  Get to know your local recycling centers and find out how they dispose of toxic e-waste.  A great site is from the Basel Network (mentioned in the videos) that have created a list of rigorously tested recycling centers certified as e-stewards.

sshot-2009-08-24-[15-47-07]

Alternatives to Recycling 

Just because a computer is too obsolete for your needs doesn’t mean it it cannot help someone else.  There are several donation programs that will take your legacy computer , get it in working order, and give them to others who need a starter machine to get into the information age.  One thing I do is destroy all my data with DBAN and put on a fresh version of Linux or Windows and bring it to a thrift store. 

comp

Other Options

  • Sell it.  If your old computer has some value left you might be able to sell it on ebay or craigslist for a bit of spending money.
  • Repurpose it.  Figure out a new way to use the old machine.  Install a light version of Linux like Damn Small Linux or Puppy Linux to breathe new life into it, turn it into a firewall, give it to your child or grandparents for web browsing, simple word processing and games.
  • Keep it around for parts.  I do some computer repair on the side from my home and it has been awesome having extra memory, NIC cards, and hard drives laying around.  Even having an extra CRT monitor is nice to use in case one of the LCD screens goes bad.
  • Keep it.  If your current machine goes down for some reason you will have a spare to hook up while getting it fixed or getting a new one.  You can also use it to do geeky things like trying Linux or creating a network. 

Conclusion

If you have private data like credit card numbers, security number, heck even your favorite pictures on the hard drive it is extremely important to make sure it is wiped out.  If you need to recycle it, make sure it’s with a trustworthy company.  Even if you donate or repurpose a computer, ultimately it will need to be disposed of but hopefully with more awareness we can help do it responsibly.  Leave us a comment about how you get rid of your old machines. 

Links 

Download DBAN

Certified E-steward Recycling program

Full PBS Frontline Video About Digital Dumping In Ghana

60 Minutes Video about Toxic E-Waste

Lowell Heddings, better known online as the How-To Geek, spends all his free time bringing you fresh geekery on a daily basis. You can follow him on if you'd like.

  • Published 08/25/09

Comments (13)

  1. Robin Ingenthron

    BAN.org was a great organization 8 years ago, but they never followed up on actually auditing their e-stewards until this year, and at this point I don’t know how many are actually audited. They have also miscast the export issue as “80% junk”, which all independent research shows is not economically sustainable. Most of the export market is driven by legitimate reuse and recycling. This is not to say that there is no problem, but like “Fair Trade Coffee” the solution is NOT to boycott exports. If PC exports are outlawed, only outlaws will export PCs. I’d like to suggest you visit some of the good news stories about how active and constructive engagement with export markets creates internet access and lessens the developing world’s dependence on “bad apple” exporters. Visit http://www.wr3a.org or http://www.fairtraderecycling.org. Due disclosure, I own an electronics recycling company in Vermont http://www.retroworks.net, I am also a past environmental regulator and former Peace Corps volunteer. My company offered to sign the BAN pledge years ago but were turned down because we said we exported for repair (legal under Basel Conventionn Annex IX, B1110). We know of several Pledge “stewards” who export to the same factory and market, and some who cannot export there because they aren’t removing non-repairable junk.

  2. Jeffs3rd

    Someone is going to say it sooner or later, so I will be the first:

    Taking a hammer or axe to a drive doesn’t *technically* destroy the data. Yes, it may break the drive and make it *unusable* but that’s not to say that someone, with the right equipment and know-how, could technically get data off of your drive.

    Yes, that may be a bit paranoid, but it’s the truth. A better option is a DOD wipe, then smash it up cause that is a special type of fun.

    My company once discussed purchasing a drive shredder, and I was pretty excited. That fell through, though. Color me disappointed.

  3. Nick

    Heh, I’ll try this with the old IBM PS/2 I have…

  4. el.il

    and what about re-purposing the hardware? you can make a fish bowl out of a CRT screen, a cup holder out of the CD drive, or put notes in the floppy drive. i have many ideas like that.

  5. jim

    Darik’s Boot and Nuke is the best option as I see it. Then it can be donated to people who can’t afford a computer, and saving the environment. Love your column, I check it every morning.

  6. JH

    Why not try something really outlandish that you would never think of doing with a decent machine. Like putting a window or something in the hard drive, if it works keep the drive, ditch the rest to a worthy cause, no worries about data and you have something pretty cool. If it doesn’t, tough, just have to either keep it to look at or destroy it properly.

  7. JHubbard92

    I think I will go for the hammer and axe trick ;) … amazingly fun :D

  8. Mark Weber

    Don’t forget to check with your local schools. Many do not have the money to spend on new computers and make due with donations (especially private schools).

  9. Carlosmessi

    I’ve never done so. The one thing I’ve done is trade it with a new one giving some money also.

  10. Hariharan

    Best option is Donating it if Very old i.e. 7-8 Yrs

    OR

    If you can find the parts for a decent upgrade then make it a Download server or a Simple HTPC.

  11. beyonce

    ugly

  12. steve

    are you really beyonce

  13. Hannah

    No she is not Beyonce!! and El.il nice idea!!

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