We all have old electronics tucked away in our drawers and closets. It’s hard to admit that a computer, phone, or peripheral that cost hundreds or even thousands of dollars years ago has little or no value anymore. That’s doubly true if it doesn’t work anymore and even more so if it becomes a fire hazard. But once you’ve decided to get rid of that PowerBook 520 from the 1990s or your first digital camera from 2004, resist the urge to simply toss it in the trash.
In some places, it’s illegal to throw out electronics because they often contain heavy metals like mercury, lead, and lithium, plus other hazardous materials that can pollute the air if incinerated or contaminate the ecosystem if buried in landfills. Even if dumping e-waste is not actively illegal in your area, it’s a terrible thing to do. So what can you do instead?
No matter what you choose, make sure to delete all your data to the extent possible. If the device in question works, it’s best to erase or reformat its storage. Apple makes that relatively easy, especially on iOS devices; look in Settings > General for a reset option that contains Erase All Content and Settings. If it’s a Mac that is still operational, you can easily erase it if it’s running macOS Monterey and you have a T2 chip (most 2018 and later models), or you can follow these instructions for older machines. For dead computers whose drives contain data, you can remove the drive and ensure your data can’t be accessed by using an external USB-SATA adapter or whacking it with a hammer, or drilling through the case. That can be a good stress reliever too, but be sure to wear safety goggles.
If the old device is fully functional or sufficiently rare, you may be able to sell it on eBay or through Craigslist. To determine if that is likely to be worthwhile, search for similar used devices on those sites. If others are selling their old stuff, you probably can too. Keep in mind that you’re not likely to make much, and be sure to take shipping costs and fuss into account.
Given the low value of even fully functional hardware, a more socially beneficial option is often to take advantage of local programs that accept donations of working computers and other electronics, clean and refurbish them as necessary, and then donate them to schools, libraries, community centers, and other worthy institutions. If the program to which you’re donating is a registered nonprofit, you may even be able to deduct the value of the gear from your taxes.
If your area lacks such programs, check out Computers with Causes, which accepts donations of computers, tablets, and gadgets. It then refurbishes them and moves them on to groups like youth centers, K–12 schools, libraries, historical societies, wildlife conservation organizations, and more. Also look into World Computer Exchange, which provides donated computers and electronics to youth in developing nations.
All too often, the only realistic option for disposing of old electronics is recycling so they can be made into new electronics. That doesn’t mean just tossing that old iPhone 3GS in the bin with your #2 plastics. It’s extremely important that e-waste be recycled separately from standard recyclables like cardboard, paper, cans, and plastic tubs. That’s because lithium batteries from improperly recycled electronics are causing dangerous fires at recycling centers.
Municipal waste programs are often set up to recycle e-waste properly, and they may be the easiest option in your area. For alternatives, look to the large chain stores Best Buy and Staples, both of which accept electronics for recycling, generally for free, though they don’t typically accept desktop monitors including iMac. Apple stores also accept electronics for recycling (my favorite option for Apple devices as they may be the most efficient recyclers of their own products), or you can request a prepaid shipping label that lets you ship e-waste to Apple. Alternatively, try searching the Earth911 database for other recycling options near you. The Consumer Technology Association also provides a locator for electronics recycling; it may have slightly different listings.
For my readers in San Francisco and the DC area here are some official resources:
- San Francisco: Recology
- Washington, DC: Department of Energy & Environment
- Montgomery County, Maryland: Department of Environmental Protection
- Prince George’s County, Maryland: Brown Station Road Sanitary Landfill
- Arlington County, Virginia: County Website
For other locations, you may wish to Google your county and state with the word e-waste.
Regardless of where you take your e-waste, be sure to read the requirements first. Not all sites take all types of electronics—a cell phone is much easier to handle than a broken large-screen TV. Also, you may need to remove any batteries first and recycle them separately so they can be handled with additional care to prevent fires.
Thanks for doing your part to keep old electronics from causing harm!
(Featured image by iStock.com/ThamKC)