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Environmentally–Friendly Solutions for Obsolete Computers

Did you just buy a new computer with all the trimmings — a 21–inch monitor, a color printer, maybe a high–speed scanner? Don't get too attached to your brand–new toys. Your computer will be considered hopelessly out–of–date in a little more than three years. Be prepared to call the monitor ancient in four to seven years, and the new printer or scanner will no longer be state–of–the–art in three to five years.1

While these incredibly short life span estimates reveal the fast pace of technological change, they also highlight a growing problem: there are millions of computers in offices and homes that have become nothing more than heavy, expensive clutter.

Where have all the old computers gone?

Many obsolete computers have been thrown in landfills, or were sent to gather dust in storerooms, basements, or attics. Some people who are currently stockpiling old machines are reluctant to part with them because they believe the equipment may still be valuable. This is rarely the case, however — stored computer equipment becomes less valuable by the year.

Instead of hanging on to your old Commodore 64, imagining that one day it may achieve its former glory, it's time to look into donating your equipment to a worthy recipient or into recycling it. Staples takes old computers and related equipment even if they were purchased elsewhere. Sending this old technology to Staples is an easy, green alternative.

Keep it as long as possible— but be realistic

Although it is inevitable that your computer will be outmoded someday, you can prolong someday by taking care of your machine. The following tips will help you get more mileage out of your equipment:

  • Plug your equipment into a surge protector to avoid potentially damaging electricity surges.
  • When you're done working on your computer for the day, use the shut down option instead of abruptly shutting off the machine. This option allows your computer to save and close files and programs in an orderly way. Using your on/off button in place of the shut down option does not allow your computer to prepare for being powered off, and files may become corrupted. The next time you turn your computer on after shutting it off improperly, your computer may not be able to reassemble the corrupted files.
  • Clean your computer thoroughly at least once a year — inside and out. Built–up dust and grime can compromise your computer's performance. You'll need computer cleaning products such as a can of compressed air to blow the dust away.
  • Save money with RAM upgrades. Instead of shelling out the money for a new system every three years, add memory to your system rather than buying a faster model. According to the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), upgrades can extend the life of your computer by at least a year or two.
  • Buy high–quality peripherals that will last. For example, the Pennsylvania DEP suggests buying a high–quality monitor, which should last for at least six to seven years. When it comes time to upgrade your PC, the monitor can be used with a new computer.

Reuse by donating

If you're upgrading your entire system and your old model still works, consider donating it to someone who can use it — perhaps an elementary school in your area, an employee for home use, a friend with children, or a charity that needs computers. Many non–profit organizations rely solely on donations to have working computers. Be aware that many organizations that accept computer donations can be picky — with good reason. Don't give away something that doesn't work or that is so slow it's unusable and can't be upgraded. Many organizations have requirements that the donated computers must have processors that are 486 or higher — and many require Pentium processors. Keep this in mind when searching for a recipient.

A computer donation may be tax–deductible, so you'll need to determine what your computer is worth, and get a receipt for your donation. If the value of the machine you're donating is more than $250, consult your tax advisor for details of the records you'll need to have at tax time.

"Recycling electronic equipment...conserves energy and raw materials and reduces pollution in manufacturing by allowing product constituents, such as metals and plastics, to be reclaimed and used in other products."

Don't throw it away

Never throw a computer or its accessories in the trash. In addition to taking up space and disintegrating extremely slowly in landfills, toxic chemicals can be released into the environment when electronic equipment such as computers are landfilled or incinerated. The cathode ray tubes (CRTs) in computer monitors contain lead; circuit boards contain chromium, nickel, and zinc; batteries contain mercury and heavy metals such as nickel and cadmium; and relays and switches can consist of mercury.³

Many states have implemented programs to prevent electronic equipment from ending up in landfills and the dangerous chemicals from being released into the air and water. According to the National Recycling Coalition, due to "...the presence of these hazardous or toxic substances, state and federal hazardous waste regulations may apply to handling disposal of certain types of electronic equipment. These regulations make businesses potentially liable for improper disposal of electronics."

Visit the Staples EcoEasy site for more information about what you can do with your old computers.

Recycle!

If your equipment is too old to upgrade, no longer functions properly, or will need extensive repairs to get back to workable condition, it's time to recycle the components. This is the best option for a computer that no one will use. According to the National Recycling Coalition, "Recycling electronic equipment...conserves energy and raw materials and reduces pollution in manufacturing by allowing product constituents, such as metals and plastics, to be reclaimed and used in other products."

Finding a company that will take your equipment is easy. Many organizations exist in all areas of the country that can safely recycle your equipment. The National Recycling Coalition provides a searchable database of equipment recyclers and reuse groups across the country. Also look in the Yellow Pages under "recycling" or "computer recycling" to find a company in your area that specializes in reprocessing computer components.

Be aware that you will need to drop off your equipment at the recycling organization and pay a nominal fee for each piece of equipment recycled. Many organizations will pick up the equipment if your total recyclable load is over a certain weight and it has been arranged on pallets. This is a good option for a business with a fleet of outdated computers. The fees and effort involved in recycling are small prices to pay for the benefits — a cleaner environment and a clutter–free workspace.


1National Safety Council, Electronic Product Recovery and Recycling Baseline Report: Recycling of Selected Electronic Products in the United States, 1999.
2Ibid.
3National Recycling Coalition, "How to Properly Manage Your Old Electronic Equipment," http://www.nrc–recycle.org/Programs/electronics/managing.htm.

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