Small Business

How to Trash an Old Computer


Disposing of a PC takes some legwork. Ensuring your hard drive is void of company info before it leaves your hands, though, is a snap

We need to replace several computers in my home-based business. What I'm wondering is, what can we do with the old equipment? In the past, I've had a hard time finding places to recycle it and my residential trash service won't take it.

—S.C., Altadena, Calif.

It's becoming increasingly common for trash companies to refuse to pick up electronic items, even if they did so in years past. That's due in part to increased environmental awareness about the toxicity of electronic devices and in part to laws that have passed in many jurisdictions that prohibit the disposal of electronics in local landfills. A similar federal law may be forthcoming in the next three to five years.

Most electronic devices contain poisonous heavy metals, such as lead and mercury, as well as toxic cleaning agents and other chemicals, says George Kaltner, chief executive and founder of Managed Systems, a New York-based phone and computer systems provider for small and midsize companies. "If you throw them into landfills, those things will wind up leaching into the soil. And the heavy metals will stick around for thousands of years," he says. Local water supplies could also be polluted.

Recycling Technology

You have several choices regarding what to do with your old equipment.

If you're purchasing new computers from a company that will be delivering and installing them, ask if they can haul away your current machines and dispose of them properly. Some computer companies do this as part of their service, others may ask you to pay a fee, and some will not want anything to do with your old devices. But at least ask your new provider what their policy is—it can't hurt.

Another option is to search online, using a term such as "PC recycling," for local companies that will accept your computers, monitors, hard drives, and other high-tech machinery. You'll likely have to pay a fee and bring your equipment to them, Kaltner says, and in exchange they should be able to give you documentation explaining what they do with the equipment they receive. "Many companies will take the machines and break them down, extracting the metals and recycling them, and disposing of the chemicals properly," Kaltner says. "If your equipment is newer, they may break them down for their components and ship those parts overseas for reuse." Although such companies are ultimately making some money from your items, including the gold that can be extracted from many IT devices, it's not enough for them to operate cost-effectively for free, he adds.

Some city and county jurisdictions around the country have established permanent electronic recycling centers where you can take your old equipment and drop it off, and others have periodic electronic trash roundup days. For instance, in Los Angeles County you should be able to take advantage of regularly scheduled "Household Hazardous and Electronic Waste Collection" events sponsored by 888CleanLA.com.

Donate, Don't Dump

While many small businesses used to donate their old computer systems to charities or schools, that practice is becoming less common now, Kaltner says. "Most charities aren't taking old machines because new computers are so cheap now. Donating was a better option when new computers cost a minimum of $2,000," he notes. Some charities do still accept nearly new machines, so if that's an attractive idea, give it a try. Kaltner cites the Greenwich (Conn.)-based National Cristina Foundation as one group to contact.

Whatever you do, don't opt for the covert, middle-of-the-night landfill dump that some unscrupulous companies have tried in the past. Not only because it's illegal and unethical, but also because you're likely to be caught, fined, and exposed to terrible publicity, Kaltner warns: "Environmental groups are going to the dumps now and looking at the serial numbers, then tracing the machines and dinging the corporations that disposed of them improperly."

Kill Your Hard Drive

Before you do anything, though, make sure that any personal or company data on your old computers cannot be retrieved and misused once they leave your hands. The easiest way to do that is to physically remove your hard drive from its housing and hammer a sturdy nail through the center of it, Kaltner says. That will destroy the readability of the hard drive's platter. Although you might also use a strong magnet called a "degausser" to erase your data, or purchase erasing software, "physical destruction is the only foolproof way to make certain something can't be retrieved," Kaltner says. "That, plus it's cheap and you can get out a little stress at the same time."

Karen E. Klein is a business journalist who covers small-business issues for several national publications. She writes her Smart Answers column twice a week.

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