How to Recycle a Computer: Drop-Off, Mail-In, and Repurposing Options

Whether you repurpose it, rehome it, or recycle it, that dusty old computer in your closet may still be surprisingly valuable.

PC graveyard
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It is possible to recycle a computer, and due to the environmental dangers of electronic waste, that is usually the best way to get rid of one. Yet while you can delete files on your computer by clicking and dragging, disposing of the computer itself tends to be a little more complicated.

As with other electronic devices, there are a few ways to recycle an old computer. If it still works, recycling might not even be necessary—more recent computers could have resale or trade-in value, for example, and some older machines can still make good gifts or donations.

If your computer doesn’t work, resist the temptation to throw it away with household trash. Computers contain heavy metals and other dangerous materials, which is why e-waste is regulated and even banned from landfills in some places. On the other hand, the mix of pollutants and personal data can make it seem easier to just hoard old computers, but that creates clutter and keeps the computer’s eventual fate in limbo, potentially long enough to reduce its viability for reuse or recycling.

The Importance of Computer Recycling

If discarded improperly, an old computer can become a font of toxins and carcinogens in the environment, posing a health risk for both humans and wildlife. If that same computer is recycled, however, it can become a valuable source of secondary raw materials for other electronic devices, thus preventing its own pollution while helping offset the need for new metals and plastics.

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), recycling 1 million laptops saves enough energy to power about 3,500 U.S. homes for a year.

Here are a few tips for figuring out what to do with an old computer, including how to reuse it, how to recycle it, how to protect your data, and how computer recycling works.

How to Recycle Computers

Technological Waste
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The key to recycling computers and other e-waste is efficient separation of materials. Once an old device has been accepted, processed, and stripped of data at a recycling center, the first step of recycling is often to remove any hazardous materials, such as batteries.

A conveyor belt may carry the computer to an industrial shredder, which rips it into pieces several inches in diameter. The conveyor belt then carries these pieces to powerful magnets, which help remove iron, steel, and certain other metals, followed by other sorting technologies designed to isolate specific metals and types of plastic.

Delete Your Data

Data left on an old computer may not survive the recycling process, and many e-waste recyclers pledge to protect personal information, but it’s still wise to be proactive about privacy.

Once your files are backed up, log out of all accounts and delete everything from the hard drive. Another option is to remove the hard drive, which is smaller and easier to store than a full computer, before sending the rest to be recycled. For laptops, you may need to remove the battery, too.

Drop It Off

Like other e-waste, an old computer typically can’t be collected in your curbside recycling bin. That said, it may be worth contacting your local waste management authority to see if it has special collection days or drop-off locations for e-waste. If so, make sure to ask whether your specific type of computer will be accepted.

Finding a nearby drop-off location is often the simplest way to recycle computers. Some electronics retailers host recycling events or serve as permanent drop-off sites for e-waste, but it’s a good idea to call before lugging in your computer, since the list of accepted items (and any fees) can vary from store to store. Best Buy is one example, accepting many electronic devices for recycling free of charge—including tablets, laptops, and desktop computers, as well as some accessories. There is a limit of three items per household per day, however, and Best Buy does charge a fee to recycle certain items like monitors.

Some other retailers also have recycling programs, so it might be worth calling a few stores in your area to check. There are also online tools to help you find nearby drop-off sites, such as this locator from ERI, a major e-waste recycler based in California. But proximity only matters if your specific device is accepted at that location, so look for a locator that lets you search by device type as well as location (as ERI’s does), or at least call to ask before you go.

Mail It In

Many manufacturers can help, too. Hewlett-Packard and Dell both have trade-in programs for computers that meet certain conditions, as well as donation and recycling options for less viable computers of any brand.

Apple similarly operates a trade-in and recycling program for various devices, including computers. These programs commonly involve mail-in recycling, an option that also may be available in other ways. Green Citizen, for example, offers free mail-in recycling for tablets, laptops, and desktops, although there may be fees for data destruction.

How to Reuse Computers

An office collection box for used computer equipment to be donated to the local community
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If your old computer still works, finding it a new purpose or a new home might be even better than recycling it. In either case, protect your data before you and your computer part ways.

Sell or Trade It

If you have a relatively recent computer in good condition, you may want to first try selling or trading it. That includes the aforementioned trade-in programs as well as just selling your computer online, where options include classified-ad sites like Craigslist, auction sites like eBay, or social media marketplaces and neighborhood groups, among others. 

Give It Away

Even if your computer is too old or slow to sell, you might be able to give it away or donate it to a charitable cause. Check with friends, neighbors, and family members to see if anyone wants your computer, and consider calling local schools, hospitals, nursing homes, or community centers to ask if a donated computer might be useful.

Some charities also accept old but functional computers, such as the World Computer Exchange and Computers With Causes.

Give It a New Job

Think about new uses for your old computer at your home, too. It may no longer be practical as your main computer, but if it still works reasonably well, you could demote it to a backup or light-duty computer, maybe setting it aside for specialized tasks like looking up recipes in the kitchen, video conferencing in the living room, or watching movies in the basement.

With a little technical savvy, you could convert an old computer into a network-attached storage device or a media server. You could also lend its computing power to a loftier purpose, enlisting your computer in a distributed computing project like Folding@Home.

Frequently Asked Questions
  • Where can computers be sent for recycling?

    You can ask your waste management authority and local electronics stores about drop-off options, or use an online locator tool to find locations near you. Many computer manufacturers also now have mail-in recycling programs for devices that don’t meet trade-in standards.

  • What do you need to do before recycling your computer?

    You should back up your data and then remove it from your computer. Log out of all accounts, delete files, and clear the hard drive. If it’s a laptop, you may also need to take out the battery.

  • Are keyboards and other accessories recyclable, too?

    Aside from monitors and hardware, many accessories are accepted for recycling along with computers themselves. Drop-off sites and mail-in programs may accept keyboards, mice, cables, speakers, modems, and routers. And even if your computer is dead, you might want to evaluate accessories separately, as they could still be useful.

View Article Sources
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  2. Habib Al Razi, Khandakar Md. "Resourceful Recycling Process of Waste Desktop Computers: A Review Study." Resources, Conservation and Recycling, vol. 110, 2016, pp. 30-47., doi:10.1016/j.resconrec.2016.03.017

  3. "Electronics Donation and Recycling." Environmental Protection Agency.