Recycling Old Computers – Why and How

Hoping to find out more about recycling old computers?

Why recycle old computers

With technological developments taking place at such a fast pace today, our electronic devices, especially our personal computers, become obsolete very quickly.

Processing speed and power, memory space (e.g. RAM), hard disk space, graphic and sound cards, screen resolution, modem design, etc, are being improved on by leaps and bounds, overnight.

And such technological developments are becoming more affordable with time (e.g. what used to cost a few thousands several years ago can now be purchased for less than a thousand).

So it is no wonder that more and more new computers are being purchased all over the world today, especially in this internet era. In fact, in some parts of the world, the number of households with computers is substantial.

For example, according to a 2006 survey by the Infocomm Development Authority of Singapore, 78% of households in that country own at least a computer set, and this figure has increased since then.

With such high consumption of computers and computer related products (e.g. printers, computer monitors, etc) all over the world today, it is unlikely to be surprising that the rate of disposal of these electronic products is just as high.

Moreover, it is now often more expensive to repair your old computer set, as compared to getting a new set. For example, according to the Electronics Takeback Coalition which draws its sources from the Environmental Protection Agency, 205.5 million units of computer-related waste was disposed of in US in 2007.

Besides taking up substantial amount of space at the landfills, there are other problems that such large scale disposal of computer-related waste bring to the environment. These problems are what makes recycling old computers important.

Let me share with you what I found out about recycling old computers.

Computers contain substantial amounts of substances that are harmful to the environment and living things. The following are some of the well-known and potentially dangerous substances:

  • brominated flame retardants: used in the plastic cases and cables of computers to reduce the flammability of the electronic set, and has been found to affect nervous system, thyroid and liver health in both humans and animals;

  • cadmium: used in nickel-cadmium rechargeable batteries for portable computer sets like laptops and netbooks, and has been found to cause damage to lungs (when fumes are inhaled) and kidneys;

  • lead: used in cathode ray tube (CRT), glass in computer monitor, as well as in soldering of parts in the computer, and has been found to cause damages to the nervous and brain system;

  • mercury: used in flat screen monitors, fluorescent tubes etc, and has been found to reduce mental abilities, fertility and even cause death

While manufacturers of computer sets are increasingly looking into ways to reduce the quantity of these harmful substances in the newer computer models, these substances still exist in the older models (that are still being discarded by the day) as well as in the newer models, even if in smaller quantities.

In turn, the leeching of these toxic substances into the ground and underground water supplies near the landfills lead to serious land pollution and water pollution.

The release of toxic fumes when discarded computer sets (containing these toxic substances) are incinerated also contribute to air pollution and green house gas emissions. It is this environmental pollution that makes the large scale disposal of computer-related waste problematic.

In turn, recycling old computers serves as a potential means of reducing the environmental impact that the large scale disposal of computer-related waste brings. Recycling old computers helps to keep these toxic substances out of our landfills, our soil, our water supplies and our air.

In addition, recycling old computers also help to recover and conserve valuable materials (e.g. metals like zinc and gold, and even plastic) that are being used in the production of computers. The recycling of these materials from old computers in turn reduces the need to produce new materials (e.g. producing plastic from petroleum, a non-renewable resource) or extract virgin supplies from the ground.

This is important because deforestation and mining activities to extract virgin materials from the earth contribute substantially to pollution. Deforestation leads to the loss of vegetation cover that protects the land from soil erosion.

Mining activities in turn leech large amounts of toxic substances like heavy metals (e.g. arsenic), sulphuric acid or chemicals used in processing ores (e.g. cyanide), into the ground. These substances pose serious dangers to the lives of organisms living in the soil, as well as animals and humans living near the contaminated land.

Besides environmental reasons for recycling old computers, there are also economic reasons. Manufacturers could actually transfer some of the savings gained from recycling parts in old computers (to be used in the new computer sets, as such keeping production cost lower) to consumers, as such, keeping costs lower for consumers. It’s a win-win situation.

Annie Leonard cleverly summarizes the problem we are facing today with the design of computer and electronic products, in the video “The Story of Electronics”. Watch this video and find out more.

Tips for recycling old computers

Now that you are aware of the reasons why recycling old computers (instead of simply dumping them) is important, I will share some tips on how you can go about recycling old computers you have.

Deciding what to do with your old computer

The worst thing you can do with your old computer, especially one that is still functioning, is to allow it to sit in your storeroom for years, until it becomes totally obsolete and very unlikely to be used by anyone else (not even those in the less developed part of the world).

If you have a computer that you no longer need, here are a few points to consider when deciding what to do with it.

Is your computer relatively new and functioning well? If it is, it could probably be reused by someone else. For example, it could be sold as a second hand set on e-bay, or donated to a local charity so that the less fortunate in the community can also have the opportunity to learn how to use the computer.

If your computer needs refurbishing or repair to be able to function, an assessment might be needed on whether it is economical to fix the set for reuse. You could check directly with the charity you have in mind, or your local recyclers, to find out if they are able to carry out such an assessment.

A computer set that is no longer economical to fix for reuse is likely to end up at the recycling facility (read more about the process of recycling computers at the recycling facility).

Preparing for recycling old computers

Before handing your computer over to its second-hand owner, your chosen charity or recycler, there’s an important thing you need to do.

Consider the private information that might be stored (intentionally, or unintentionally) in your computer set, for example, financial information, passwords, social security numbers, etc.

Deleting all the files in your computer set does not mean the end of these important private information. A skilled programmer with the correct tools, and probably some time and effort, could still readily retrieve the information, if they wish to.

To deal with these potential information breach issues, some people follow the standards set by the U.S. Department of Defense in terms of data erasure.

Data security and IT asset management companies like Reclamere provide advice to clients on the level of sensitivity of their data, as well as the options (e.g. digital sanitization versus physical destruction of hard disks) they have to get rid of their data. Others choose to remove the hard disks from their computers totally, sensitive data or not, prior to handing the sets over to someone else.

Where to go for recycling old computers

If you are looking to donating your old computers for reusing, some of the places you can look at are:

  • the National Cristina Foundation (NCF): functioning in all fifty states within the United States, this organization makes use of the donated computers to educate and prepare at-risk youths and disadvantaged personnel for work.

  • Intel’s Students Recycling Used Technology: this programme engages students in rebuilding donated computers, so that these computer sets could be donated to the less privileged.

Also, check out the recycling collection centres that take in unwanted computers.

If you are looking to recycling old computers you have, you could possibly contact your local recycler. Some general stores like “Best Buy” and “Office Depot” also provide the service of collecting unwanted computer sets for recycling.

In recycling old computers, you might want to know that not all recyclers follow environmentally friendly or safe recycling practices. Some recyclers ship the unwanted computers and electronic products to developing countries (e.g. China, Pakistan, India), where the labour cost for recycling is cheap, but the environmental and worker safety laws are weak.

In some of these places, everyone from the young and old are involved in “recycling”. Recycling old computers and electronic devices may take the form of manual dismantling and tearing apart of the appliances in home backyards or in streets, without regard for human safety or the environment.

The toxic substances found in computers could readily leach into the ground (and even water supplies), when computers and monitors are taken apart, without safety precautions, to extract the more precious parts.

The remaining parts of the computers might then be dumped and allowed to accumulate at the local landfills (often with less strict standards for environmental protection, as compared to those in developed countries) or are burnt at the local incinerators, releasing toxic fumes into the environment.

What this means is that with unethical recyclers, the green efforts in recycling old computers in one part of the world is leading to environmental pollution in another part of the world. The pollution problem is not solved – it is merely moved somewhere else.

Condoning such unethical recycling old computer practices actually discourages manufacturers from effectively addressing pollution problems upstream, such as through eco-friendly product design.

In other words, the value of going green has not been internalized by the manufacturers or recyclers. The manufacturers and recyclers simply found the easy way out to appear “green” where consumers demand, without having to actually make the effort to be environmentally friendly.

That is why the Basel Action Network (BAN) and the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition (SVTC) started the Electronics Recyclers Pledge of True Stewardship. Through this initiative to provide accredited and independent certification for conformity to environmentally sound practices, BAN/SVTC hopes to help consumers identify recyclers for recycling old computers that are truly environmentally friendly.

What happens is that BAN/SVTC would actually list down the recycling old computer companies that have upheld the pledge of “true stewardship” toward the environmental cause on its respective website. Consumers can then be directed to these recyclers.

Where To Send Unwanted Computers
For Recycling?

If you take in unwanted computers and related items for recycling, I would love to share your service with my readers.

Anyone intending to get ride of their unwanted computers will definitely find your service information very useful.

Please share with us the following details:
- location of computer collection centre(s)
- type / condition of computers or other related items (e.g. monitor, keyboard, etc) that would be rejected/accepted by collection centre(s)
- any fees incurred / reimbursement given for using the recycling service
- any additional service(s) provided (e.g. free transportation of unwanted computers to collection centre)
- contact(s) for queries

Note that regrettably, we are unable to provide links to external webpages.

Enter the name of your collection company / centre
(e.g. California Recycling)

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