Retiring that Old Computer – How to Recycle a PC

Do you have an old computer stuffed away in the closet or basement?  Perhaps it is sitting, unplugged, beside the new PC that replaced it.  Old, obsolete computers are a side effect of our technology age. Yesterday’s hottest technology is replaced, sooner or later, with the coolest new gadget.  We love the speed and features of our new computer, but what should we do with the old one?  Is it worth anything to someone else?  Can we just throw it in the trash?  What about old data on the hard drive?

In most places environmental laws prohibit improper disposal of old electronics.  Tossing them in the trash is not allowed.  Fortunately, someone may be able to use the old computer and, if not, electronic recycling is easy.  Regardless of the computer’s ultimate destination we cannot leave the old data on the computer, not with HIPAA requirements and the risk of identity theft.

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Reuse

The best way to dispose of an old computer is to pass it on to someone else.  A computer too slow to run the latest version of your Practice Management software may be perfect for someone needing only a web browser.  Giving the old computers and displays to your staff could be considered a nice perk.  The computer should be in working order to be a good candidate to give away.   A broken computer is best just recycled.

Schools today are usually not interested in old gear.  Most use specific models of up-to-date computers.  It is easy to call them and tell them what you have, but they will likely not be interested in anything except newer equipment.

Another notion is to sell old equipment on eBay or Craigslist.  Be prepared to get very little for it.  It may not be worth the hassle.  Look for similar models posted on those sites to see what your old equipment might be worth.  For example, a five-year-old Dell Optiplex 280 that cost $1,000 originally might fetch $60 if you are lucky enough to find a buyer.

Other places to consider include your local church, mosque or synagogue.  Perhaps Goodwill or another charitable organization.   Spread the word to your staff to see if they know anyone that could use the old equipment.  You might be surprised at how many people like to collect old PCs just to tinker.

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Recycle

When you cannot give away old electronics you should recycle them.  Computers, monitors, TVs, cell phones, digital cameras and anything similar are considered eWaste, and should be disposed of properly.    These devices contain small amounts of lead, mercury and other harmful substances that can pollute the environment.  If you throw them out with your trash you might risk being fined.

If you bought a computer monitor or flat panel TV in the past several years you probably paid a recycling fee at the time of purchase.  The fee varies by state and usually by the size of the monitor.  States tax the sale of new devices to subsidize the disposal of old devices.  These fees fund eWaste recycling initiatives.

Recycling eWaste is easier than ever.  In many cities you can call an eWaste recycling company that will pick up your eWaste for free.  Some may ask you to drop it off at their recycling center.  How can they do it for free?  They typically make money from two sources. Your state will pay them with funds from the tax collected and they sell sorted eWaste in bulk.  An effective way to find a local eWaste recycler would be to type “eWaste Recycling Sacramento California” (substitute your city and state) into your favorite search engine such as Google, Yahoo or Bing.

Smaller communities might not have a local eWaste recycling company.  Your local municipal landfill may instead offer an alternative such as a “drop center” where you can leave eWaste.  I have seen organized eWaste drop off days at community centers.  Retail companies such as Best Buy often act as collection points allowing you to drop off your old electronics at no cost, or they will charge a nominal fee and give you an in-store gift certificate for the same amount (out with the old, in with the new!).

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The recycler will strip and recycle the plastic and metals from the cases.  They shred remaining circuit boards and electronics and ship them in bulk to companies, often overseas, that melt down the electronics to recover the small but valuable amounts of precious metals such as gold and platinum.

Preparing for Retirement

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Removing your data

Whether you are giving the PC away or recycling it, you need to remove your data from the hard drive.  Simply deleting your files from “My Documents” is not nearly good enough.  Private data is kept in many places:

  • Desktop
  • My Documents, My Pictures, etc
  • Favorites
  • Browser Histories
  • Registry
  • Other folders and files

In fact there are so many possible places for private data that the only guaranteed solution is to wipe or destroy the internal hard drive where the data was stored.

You may think that this is unnecessary if you take computer to an eWaste recycler.  The recycler might even offer a guarantee that your data will be destroyed.  I would not take the risk.  It is incredibly simple for a person with modest technical skills to remove the hard drive from your old PC, attach it to a cheap USB drive adapter, plug it into a laptop and gain instant access to your old data.  They do not need the old computer to work or even your Windows password.  An unscrupulous person could search the old hard drives for data after the old computers leave your office and before they arrive at the recycling center and are destroyed.  I recommend you either destroy or wipe the data from the drive before recycling.

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Destroying the drive

The ultimate solution to data privacy is to physically destroy the hard drive.  My personal favorite solution is to remove the drive from the case, then whack the heck out of it with a big hammer.  The process can be quite cathartic, and when you are done only an FBI forensic lab would be able to recover the data.  Be sure to smash the circuit board and connectors.   A few issues present themselves with this approach:

  • How do you remove the drive?  It is fairly easy. If you search YouTube for “How to remove a hard drive” you’ll find a variety of videos that show you how step by step.  You will need no tools beyond a small screwdriver.  You could also ask your local IT person to pop the drive out for you; it should only take a moment.
  • Safety first!  If you are going to smash the drive to bits with a hammer, be sure to do it in a safe place like the concrete floor in a garage or parking lot.  Little bits go flying so wear safety glasses.
  • Treat the smashed drive like other eWaste and recycle it properly.
  • You have rendered the computer nonfunctional by removing the hard drive.  If you plan to reuse or donate the computer you should install a new, blank, hard drive (less than $100) and then reinstall an operating system such as Windows (not a trivial task).  You could ask your local IT person to tackle this for you as well.  The recipient of the computer might also be up to the task.

Wiping the drive

If you are giving the computer away an alternative to destroying the hard drive is wiping all existing data from it. There are several ways to do this:

  • Reformat the drive.  By booting to a DOS or Windows CD or floppy, you could use the old ‘Format C:’ command to reformat the hard drive.  This will delete any record of the old files on the drive.
  • Wipe the drive using a special disk wiping tool. These are more thorough than a simple format.  These tools write 1’s and 0’s to every spot on the hard drive, overwriting existing data completely.  Tools for this can easily be purchased or downloaded for free.  One free download tool I have used successfully is Darik’s Boot and Nuke CD.
  • Ask your IT person to do this for you.  It is a simple task for them as they should have the necessary software at hand.

Once you have wiped the drive, you still have the problem that the computer no longer has an operating system like Microsoft Windows on it.  Again, the person receiving the computer might take care of loading it or you could ask your IT person to tackle this for you.

One final tip:  Check that the CDROM and Floppy drive are empty.  Often people forget media is in the drive, and it too can contain data.  You can open the CDROM drive without turning on the power, insert a straightened paperclip into the small hole usually adjacent to the eject button.

Conclusion

Once you have found a means of disposal I encourage you to champion the movement.  Announce to your staff that you are cleaning up your eWaste from home and the office and encourage them to contribute their personal eWaste.  We did this at our office and ended up with 20+ PCs, VCRs, TVs and a pile of old cell phones.  One call to the recycler and it was all gone.  If this works out well, consider extending the program to your patients.  You could act as a collection point a couple times a year for all their eWaste and show you are helping to keep your community green.

Since your existing IT person didn’t suggest this to you, perhaps you would consider working with the people that did. If you need a little help tackling these ideas, this is what MME Consulting does. We can help you quickly and efficiently. Just give us a call at 866-419-1102 or check us out online at www.mmeconsulting.com.

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