Computer manufacturers have started to listen to us women when it comes to building computers that not only possess the power, speed, and crisp displays that everyone wants, but that deliver in the style department as well. This is all great news, until you find yourself burdened with old technology you no longer want. And then you discover a dark side to all this innovation.

Like most things in life (except children), bringing something new into your home means last year’s model has to go. If you’re shopping for a new computer, you may also be faced with the chore of getting rid of something that’s surprisingly difficult to dispose of. The end of life that all electronics face (much too quickly) has been plaguing corporations for years. Now it’s our turn.

Computers are full of nasty stuff—including cadmium, lead, and mercury—that leach toxins into the water supply or atmosphere if dumped in the landfill or burned. Since we have pretty stringent laws about disposal in the United States (compared to some parts of the world), much of our cast-off electronic equipment ends up in the landfill of poor countries, where it is burned or left to molder, and endangers the health of already impoverished people who didn’t even benefit from those electronics in the first place. The Basel Action Network, a Seattle-based network of advocates focused on the trade in electronic waste, roughly estimates that “10.2 million obsolete computers with monitors are exported each year.” Though no one is really certain of the exact numbers, the problem is huge and growing.

I find this upsetting and try to do whatever I can about it, which as a consumer means buying carefully and trying to find a new use for electronics that have outgrown their original purpose before I attempt to dispose of them. And when it is time to chuck electronics, I do so as responsibly as possible, even if that means I have to shell out a little money to make sure they get recycled instead of dumped. (Computers are difficult to recycle and it seems that even much of our supposedly recycled electronic waste simply ends up poisoning someone else’s backyard, but I do what I can.) Even if you’re okay with thoughtless planetary destruction, your local trash collector will probably refuse to take old computer equipment anyway.

I tend to upgrade computers when they become annoying to me but before they are completely useless. My kids, mother, and local schools all love this about me. Every time I upgrade, someone gets a hand-me-down. When my daughter was in preschool, for example, I got rid of my then-old-to-me computer by installing a handful of kid games on it and setting it up in her classroom as a “play station” right next to the blocks and water table. (I asked the teachers and administrator first and, yes, the school was a non-profit and I took a tax deduction.) The next time I went in the classroom, the kids presented me with a giant thank you card and an adorable group hug. They were thrilled to get the computer and I felt like a hero. There are lots of people who might want your cast-offs and who will put them to good use. A teenage geek might want to pull out the memory and use it for his latest world-domination project. A lonely grandmother in your neighborhood might want to get on the Internet and need a hand doing it. The senior center might like an extra email station. The trick here is to move quickly. Don’t shove the thing in a closet to deal with later. The older a computer is, the more challenging it becomes to find it a good home.

If you don’t know anyone who wants your old gear, the National Cristina Foundation will find a needy home for a computer with a little life left in it (i.e., a computer that is less than five years old). Log on, answer a few questions about your computer, and this non-profit will find someone in its national network that needs just such a thing. Or list it at Freecycle or craigslist to see if some geek-in-training is looking for free parts.

If your computer is very old or hopelessly broken, recycling it may be your only option. (Though if you think it might just be old enough to be a museum piece, list it on craigslist just to see what happens. Maybe it has attained collector status.) You can search for a local computer recycler through the Basel Action Network. Or try the manufacturer. Many computer manufacturers are making an effort to help clean up this electronic mess—or at least prevent further mess. (In fact, planning for responsible end-of-life disposal is something I consider when I buy a computer. Can we all support new green technologies, please?)

Dell will take your old computer away for free if you’re buying a new one (or for a small fee if you aren’t). Hewlett-Packard recently hauled away my old CRT monitor (and promised to recycle it responsibly) for a $17 shipping fee. They sent a shipper to pick it up at my door; all I had to do was slap a label on it, which seemed a fair arrangement. My monitor was too old to qualify for the company’s trade-in program, which lets you sell back your old equipment in exchange for newer stuff, but I did get a coupon for $20 off at the company’s online store, so I was pretty pleased. Apple will take back and recycle your old computer free of charge if you are buying a new one. Gateway will take back your old stuff in exchange for a discount on new purchases, and you can quickly find out what your gear is worth in a trade-in. The company also offers recycling services. There are more of these programs launching every day, so check with your old computer’s manufacturer or the company you plan to buy from. If they don’t offer any recycling services, maybe you would rather buy from a company that cares about that toddler in Lagos who is breathing in our e-waste with his breakfast every day?

This is an excerpt from my upcoming book: How to Be a Geek Goddess [No Starch Press]. Look for it in stores in November or order it here.

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6 thoughts on “Out With the Old”

  1. disposal and computer parts not recyclingOut With the Old

  2. there was an article about this in National Geographic (maybe within the last year?). Dig it up if you’re interested. Sorry for the lack of specific reference 😉

  3. This came to me via email but I want to share the wisdom so I’m posting it here. –Christina (the Geek Girlfriend)
    ——————–

    I love this!!! And will try to keep up. For example, just read your 5/27 post and could not agree more. Personally I hold on to my computers for too long. But in the office I am constantly running into the responsible disposal issue. I have tried many solutions, including paying companies to come get ‘em and do something good with them. Here again, they are often too old for reuse (when did 5 years become too old for anything?) but we have donated to non-profits, schools, our garage attendant’s kids, etc.

    KTM

  4. hey nice piece. you can come recycle my pc anytime.

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