How to Dispose of Old Computers

The body of a computer is a toxic mess. Many dead computers end up in third-world trash dumps where they may leak lead, mercury, cadmium and arsenic into the environment. E-waste -- old computers, cell phones, digital cameras and similar tech -- is the 21st century's fastest growing waste stream. Fortunately for the environment, there are alternatives to throwing your laptop in the trash.

Junk yard
A domestic landfill.
credit: Jevtic/iStock/Getty Images

Give It Away

Giving your computer to someone else is the most environmentally friendly option. If you give it to a charity, nonprofit or school, you may be able to take an itemized write-off for the cash value -- not the original purchase price -- on your federal taxes. If your computer is broken or more than 5 years old, it's not a good candidate for donation. Find out before you donate whether the organization is willing to accept your computer -- some groups have specific needs.

Selling It

If you need cash more than you need to be generous, selling the computer is an option, as long as it's still working. Posting an announcement on Craigslist is free and easy. Auctioning off the computer on eBay takes more work, but it might bring in more cash. Look up similar models on eBay to see what price you should set for your machine. You can also use websites, such as Gazelle, that specialize in buying used electronics.

The Recycling Route

Even if your computer is past the point of no return, many of its components may still be usable if you recycle. Apple will recycle your Mac if you ship it to the company. The Environmental Protection Agency has an online list of tech stores and companies that provide recycling drop-off points. You can also give your city hall a call: Many local governments have hazardous-material programs that dispose of electronics outside of a landfill. Check out the social networking sites of local computer user groups for information about local recycling events that benefit charity.

Before You Say Goodbye

Most computers hold a treasure-trove of passwords and personal data. Even with a dead computer, a skilled hacker may be able to suck valuable intel out of the hard drive. After you copy everything you need to your new computer, wipe the drive of the old one clean. If you're giving or selling it to someone else, run a virus scan just to be considerate. If the computer's dead and you don't know how to access the hard drive, smashing it with a hammer should do the trick.