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Issue #691: October 18-24, 2020

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Q: What can I do with a 15-year old laptop that I no longer need? I don’t want to toss it in the trash because the metal elements can leach into the water supply. Is there a place that accepts donations? If not, where can I dispose of it safely?

– Beverly H.
Niceville, Florida

A:  As I write this column, it is “Prime Day” and retailers all over the country are preparing for Black Friday, and other major sales events.  That makes the timing of your question an excellent one, not just for you, but for anyone who will be acquiring new hardware, leaving them with the same problem as you have.

Although I share your concern for the environment, from the perspective of this geek, who has more knowledge about cybersecurity than the average home computer user, it is far more important to make sure every last bit of personal information is irretrievably erased from the system before it passes from your hands.  Simply deleting files is not enough, as the data they contain remains on the disk even after their directory entry has been removed.  It is a pretty simple matter for anyone with a little knowledge and the right software tool to retrieve information that you might think is gone for good.  As events in our current political quagmire have shown, personal information left behind on a device can, and will be exploited.  In a case like yours, the primary concern is identity theft.

Having said all that, it’s time to get to your actual question.  I’ve actually covered this very topic twice before, including once way back when I first started writing It’s Geek to Me (Geek Note: I.G.T.M. Issue #16, November 8, 2007) and another just a couple years ago (Geek Note: I.G.T.M. Issue #595, December 16, 2018).  Those issues are available in the column archives on my website, and despite significant advances in technology since then, the answers remains essentially the same.

Back in 2007 I recommended an organization called Freecycle for divesting yourself of not just computers, but all sorts of stuff you want to get rid of.  Freecycle is still around, and I dare say is even bigger now than back then.  I did a quick Google search on “how to dispose of old computers” and found some additional places worth a look-see.  Companies like PC Liquidations and eRecure are certified disposal specialists, and have collection points nationwide.  Big box retailer Best Buy also has a free in-store recycling program for everything from cell phones to computers to appliances.  If you have a Best Buy near you (and I happen to know that you do, Beverly!) check them out.

There are alternatives to getting rid of your hardware.  You haven’t told me much about it other than its age.  15 years is pretty ancient in terms of PC years, but that’s usually judged by the requirements of running the latest version of Windows, and other applications.  Computers can be put to work as other types of devices that don’t require massive amounts of computing power or RAM.  Alternative operating systems such as Linux demand far-less computing horsepower than Windows, and can turn an otherwise unwanted computer into a network storage device (your own personal cloud server), a media server for music and movies, or an Internet access platform for kids or grandkids.  So before you dispose of your old hardware, consider these alternatives, and look for even more ideas online.

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