Getting Rid of Old Computers Responsibly

When a computer is beyond repair, or if you’ve decided that you really have no use for it, you have a few options, depending on your situation. To help you sort through these options, we’ve provided a Computer Disposal The Safe and Easy Way — Quick Reference. It outlines different situations along with a list of solutions.

Why Should You Refurbish or Recycle Old Computers?

  • The environment. The more you reuse and recycle, the less you contribute to the world’s overflowing landfills. Moreover, computers contain several toxic substances, which can leak into water supplies if they’re not disposed of properly.
  • The digital divide. By donating to a refurbisher, you’re providing free or low-cost computers to individuals and organizations that can’t afford new, retail PCs.

Key Actions

  • Always consult your local state and federal regulations. Many local governments have strict rules about getting rid of equipment. If you ignore these rules, you could find yourself out of a job or worse. Furthermore, if you received state or federal funding to purchase your equipment, you have to abide by the rules outlined by the granting agency. For example, e-rate funding has a lot of strings attached. If you bought any hardware with e-rate funds, take a look at the official requirements for Transfers of Equipment.
  • Create a disposal policy. After you’ve reviewed the relevant regulations (see the previous bullet), create a policy so that everyone on your staff knows the score.
  • Act quickly. Whether you plan to donate your used computers or sell them, move them along as quickly as possible. They’re not gettin’ any younger.
  • Reclaim software licenses. For major, valuable pieces of software, be sure you record the license number, registration number and/or activation key before you erase the hard drive. Also, make note of this information in your asset management system so that you and your colleagues know which copies are available for future installs.
  • Include the operating system CDs or DVDs. Frequently, the operating system that came with your computer is tied to that machine, so you can’t reclaim the license. If that’s the case, you might as well pass it along to the next owner. Include the CD or DVD that you got from the manufacturer, along with the product activation key. With Windows operating systems, the activation key is usually printed on the Certificate of Authenticity that came with the computer.
  • Erase your hard drives. Make sure you don’t leave sensitive or private information on the hard drive of a machine that you’re donating or recycling. After you’ve migrated your data to another machine or a storage medium, you want to overwrite that drive several times with random ones and zeros. Check out Further Resources for articles on how to do this.

Stories from the Field

At any rate, when a computer has reached its end of life —- it’s either four years old or it’s just so broken we can’t fix it anymore — when that happens, we have a local place here that takes our computers for free for recycling, so we take them there. The other thing we have to do that I don’t know if everybody has to do or not, our library has to make a list of all the stuff we’re going to get rid of and it has to go before the board for approval.

Michelle Foster
Boone County Public Library, KY

For the last couple of years we’ve had a public sale for our used computers. I think actually last year, it didn't make it to the public because we let the staff have first pick and the staff bought all of them. But the year before that we did actually have a public sale. We set up in our staff driveway, and it was the first time we’d ever done it, so we had a bunch of stuff that we had stuck away in closets — a lot of old switches as well as older computers that were no longer under warranty that we really couldn’t use. We generally transfer the license from one computer to another for XP and all the other software. So we’ll wipe the hard drives clean and maybe provide a compact disc of Linux to go with it. If they want to buy their own copy of XP or whatever, they can. But it’s really easy to make those installation disks for Ubuntu. I think last year we charged 50 dollars for a computer.

Robin Hastings
Missouri River Regional Library, MO

When they’re completely unusable, we do recycle. We have a recycling project going on now in our community, which we haven’t had in the past, and they do recycle that kind of equipment. Of course, the person in the community that we go to for our computer questions, I always let him look at [the computers] and see if there are any parts he can use before we actually take them to the recycling center. We’ve even refurbished a couple of them for some of the kids in the school system just so that they would have a word processor to do their homework and that kind of thing on. And actually, our Friends of the Library has started a project where they’re going to try to refurbish some for that purpose. They’re not Internet-capable, but at least they can run some software applications on them.

LeeAnn Jessee
Adair County Public Library, KY

If they’re still workable, our chamber here has a “Computers for Kids” program [in which] different computer companies volunteer their time and refurbish computers for kids who don’t have access [to one] but would need one for classes. The school recommends who to give the computers to. But we still had a couple NT machines, and they didn’t take those because they just couldn’t do much with them. Yeah, so then we destroy the hard drives and throw them out, but usually they’re donated to Computers for Kids.

Greta Lehnerz
Natrona County Public Library, WV

Further Resources

To learn more about refurbishing and recycling of old computers, check out our Further Resources section.