Forget skeletons in the closet. If you’ve ever fancied yourself a ‘computer enthusiast,’ you’re dealing with far greater beasts. They lurk behind closet doors, in basements and attics. They may even be right beneath your feet. As the years go by and you accumulate more, you just can’t escape them. Or can you?
Computer equipment is the equivalent of old love letters in terms of sentimentality and monetary value but tend to take up a lot more space. It’s a common trap for technophiles to fall in—as newer technology is released, you buy it to replace outdated models and hang on to the old machines with fair justification. Who knows when you’ll need spare parts, right? But as the older models collect more dust and new machines are released at a faster rate, we’re quickly running out of room. What’s a geek to do?
These days it’s impossible to think of just tossing out old computers with yesterday’s soda cans and pork rind wrappers and it's almost illegal to do so. There is growing concern that the disposal of “end of life” electronics poses risks to the environment because of the presence of lead, mercury, and other volatile substances. The primary concern is that the growth of this electronic waste stream and the potential for the hazardous materials to cause disposal problems in the future. Many state legislatures are focusing on the issue and writing bills to handle the e-waste better, to ban landfill disposal of electronics, and to further encourage manufacturers to do more to make the “end of life” easier for consumers and the environment.
•More than 20 million PCs become obsolete each year in the United States.
•Computers, TVs, and other electronics account for 220 million tons of waste each year in the U.S.; more than 10% of that goes into landfills.
•As much as 80% of PCs and other e-waste collected for recycling in the U.S. ends up in Asia—where it is unsafely disposed.
•40% of the lead found in landfills, as well as other toxic materials such as cadmium, barium, and mercury, are all found in PC components.
Can’t live with ’em, can’t toss ’em out. Looks like recycling is the best option. But within that option lays several sub-options. We’ll discuss a few of them in the hopes that you’ll be inspired to pursue one or devise new ways of disposing of the useless equipment.
First, let’s take a look at what you can do with those fully functioning machines that you’ve simply outgrown.
There’s no need to haul your current machine out to the dumpster merely because you upgraded. Just because your needs have surpassed the old computer, doesn’t mean everyone has, so if you’ve got relatives who are sans-computer, simply pass it along to them. Sure, it means you’ll be their personal help desk, but as a computer-owner you’ve probably already earned the reputation of being the family geek.
Already hooked up the fam with choice equipment? Schools are always in need of better computers and it’s possible that they could use your cast-offs. However, some school districts can be discriminating in selecting old computers as they may want the whole package (keyboard, mouse, software, etc.) instead of just a tower or a monitor. If you’re interested in donating to an educational facility, call up your local school district for their computer donation guidelines. Failing that, you could check into donating your goods to an individual teacher for professional or personal use.
Charities and churches are also good homes for old computers. These groups can either put your machine to use in office or find a new home for it through their connections. Check local bulletin boards and weekly papers for notices of local groups in need of computer equipment. Some charity groups may be able to provide a receipt for your donation, an added incentive for taxpayers clinging to ancient computers.
If you do manage to find someone to take your old unit, don’t forget to use disk-cleaning software to remove all residues of you and your files from the hard drive. Include any software required for the OS and write the license number on the back of the computer. Some groups will use the original software with your letter of permission.
Most technophiles don’t have just one complete unit to hand off to some unsuspecting schlub and we keep them with the intention of putting them to use in the future. But still they pile up in the middle of the floor, menacing any non-computer user and their feet. It’s time to sort through the pile to determine what’s still useful and what has become obsolete.
Anything past its usefulness should be set aside for shipping off to a computer salvage company. They can pull out any materials that can be reused and destroy the rest of the materials in an environmentally safe manner. This is also where dead peripherals and monitors should be sent. Empty out that dead mice drawer and send them off to a proper burial.
Parts less than five years old can probably be sold off for a minimal profit, depending on the size and quality. Try listing spare parts on eBay. Or, if you have an exorbitant amount of spare parts, take them down to your local flea market.
With the lower costs of technology, you could easily build a new, low-end PC using your own spare parts. In a matter of hours, you’d have an extra computer for folding, testing out fishy software, or learning a new operating system. It would also be a great learning tool for novice geeks who have never tinkered with computer innards.
Whatever you decide to do, there are dozens of computer recycling programs to give you ideas or assist you in the ultimate removal of your equipment. For example, Share the Technology gives donors and potential recipients a way to connect regardless of their metaspace location. The non-profit corporation’s mission is to help salvage retired computers before “end of life” and place them in schools or with other non-profit organizations. To do this, Share the Technology provides a searchable national computer donation database.
In February 2004, it was reported on GreenBiz.com that U.S. electronics industry representatives “endorsed a resolution with state governments and environmental groups to develop flexible and fair recycling efforts.” The report also states that the electronics industry will create a proposal for legislation to finance nationwide recycling programs through a fee at point of sale or allow companies to create alternative plans to manage costs without a fee on their products.
Some manufacturers already have recycling programs in place. Gateway, HP, and Dell each claim to offer programs and incentives for recycling through them, but you’ll have to put in some dedicated search time to find out whether the programs still exist.
Even if you can’t find a way to recycle through the manufacturers, you may be encouraged to see that some of them are taking the initiative to aid in future recycling efforts. While a few companies are implementing end-of-life programs, others are trying to cut back on the amount of toxic materials used in new devices.
It is far too easy to get wrapped up in the new toys that allow us to forget not only about the old electronics but also about the environment and the world around us. Put your devices to work for the global good by encouraging fellow technophiles to reuse and recycle spare computer parts. Encourage your local legislation to support e-waste bills and to open more computer recycling and salvaging centers in more areas.
originally published in the May-June 2004 issue of Orlando Life magazine.
Content on this site was originally written by Katharine Miller between 2000-2015. Many feature articles and interviews were published in print and on websites that no longer exist. Katharine is reproducing her written material here for portfolio and archival purposes only. Links and credits to clients and original publication will be included where possible.