How to Donate Your Computer to Charity

Your old computer might be useless to you but valuable to a non-profit organization.
Your old computer might be useless to you but valuable to a non-profit organization.
© iStockphoto/Devonyu

The fast pace of computer innovation has provided us with more powerful systems at lower prices. This leaves many of us with a dilemma. Every time we upgrade one of our computers to gain more speed, more storage or more bells and whistles, we're left with an older computer that no longer meets our needs.

For most of us, the easiest thing to do is to put the old computer system in a closet, the basement or some other out-of-sight, out-of-mind location. There are, however, better solutions, particularly if the computer in question is still operable and less than five years old.

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The worst choice you can make is to put the computer (or any electronic equipment) in the trash. Landfills are no place for the harmful chemicals, including lead, cadmium, beryllium and mercury, found in virtually all digital equipment. With many other solutions available, there's no reason to simply throw an old computer away.

You might find someone else to whom you can give your old computer. Nonprofit organizations are good choices, mainly because they often have to use their funding for priorities other than purchasing new technology. But that's where the five-year limit comes in.

Generally speaking, if your computer is more than five years old, or in the case of a Windows system, has a pre-Pentium processor, it's unlikely most charities can make use of it. It's difficult to find software for these systems and, given the number of computers being donated, many charities no longer need to accept slower machines.

If the computer isn't operational, or has inoperable components, the best choice is to work with a recycling company -- we'll get to that on the next page. Recycling company representatives can evaluate the system and, in some cases, may be able to replace hard drives or other components to create a useful system. Many charities simply don't have the personnel or capabilities required to refurbish inoperable computers.

Recycling Used Computers

If you're interested in donating your system to a specific charity, it's very important to contact the organization first, or visit its Web site, to review any necessary technical requirements. Here are a few tips to keep in mind:

  • Create a written description of the system including brand, processor, hard drive capacity, audio or video specifications, and all accessories you're including.
  • Contact the charity to determine if the computer will be of use.
  • If possible, provide the charity with a complete, fully-operational system including the keyboard, mouse, cables, documentation and any other hardware you're including.
  • Package everything carefully to avoid damage, even if you're personally delivering the computer.
  • Don't forget to ask for a receipt.

You can find links to charities seeking computer donations at the Web site for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The more complete the system is, the easier it will be for the charity to put the computer to use. The extra effort on your part is sure to be appreciated.

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If your computer is too old to rejeuvenate, you should recycle it. Technology recyclers and refurbishers accept older equipment, assess its potential, and either put it back to work through donations, or break it down and safely dispose of the dangerous materials.

Unless you have a specific charity in mind, recyclers are the best choice for computer donations. However, it's critical to choose carefully. As with many industries, a small group of unscrupulous businesses have sprung up offering recycling services, when in fact, they often dispose of obsolete systems, or send them to computer "chop shops" in third-world countries. In a chop shop, computers are stripped of useful materials using methods that don't protect the environment or workers. The rest of the materials end up in the dump.

Finding a reputable recycler or refurbisher takes a bit of online leg work (or is that mouse work?), but it's well worth the effort. Some are nonprofit corporations that focus on finding useable computers for schools, lower-income individuals and other charities. As with many industries, the recycling business has several associations and rating organizations that have established standards and best practice guidelines that must be followed.

You can find a comprehensive list of recyclers on the TechSoup Web site. TechSoup provides technology services to nonprofit organizations, including forums, webinars, blogs and access to donated computers.

Most computer manufacturers offer recycling services for free, or at minimal cost. Some will even provide shipping labels and instructions on how to send the computer to them. Many also accept computers from other manufacturers for a nominal fee. Dell, for example, doesn't charge to recycle any of its products. However, Dell will recycle other systems for a nominal charge when you buy one of its products. These programs may or may not include charitable donations.

On its Web site, the EPA provides a list of manufacturers, retailers and other companies that belong to its Plug-in to E-cycling partners program.

Preparing Your Computer for Donation or Recycling

Ridding your computer of personal data is an essential step before letting the system leave your possession. Recyclers and refurbishers usually wipe hard drives clean before sending them on. However, for your own peace of mind, you should permanently delete your data yourself.

Deleting the files and emptying the recycle bin is not enough. When you delete a file from a hard drive, the operating system only deletes the information that describes where the file is located. Restoring data after a file is deleted is relatively easy, even for non-experts. Overwriting the data with random zeros and ones is not good enough either. Nor is reformatting the hard drive. Expert hackers can usually restore data even after the drive has been overwritten or reformatted.

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The good news is there are relatively simple, permanent data erasing solutions available and some of them are free. These software utilities permanently remove files from your hard drive without leaving any trace data that could be used to restore them. In general, this is done by writing random characters and binary data to the drive anywhere from three to more than 30 times. These utilities will cover your digital tracks as completely as possible.

Even if you think you don't have any secret or personal files, you should still run an erasing application before donating your computer. Remember that critical information such as passwords are stored on your hard drive. You may not know these hidden files are there, but a resourceful identity thief may know exactly where to look and what to look for.

Erasing utilities are available from several sources. Microsoft has provided a list of these applications on its Web page about donating computer equipment. Be sure to allow plenty of time for the erasure process, particularly if you decide to use the most complete method. After all, writing data to the drive more than 30 times can take a while.

Donating your old computer to charity helps people in need, keeps dangerous stuff out of landfills, improves your mood and might even put some dollars in your pocket. You won't get a better deal than that.

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Sources

  • Dell. "Dell Recycling." (April 19, 2009) http://www.dell.com/content/topics/segtopic.aspx/dell_recycling?c=us&cs=19&l=en&s=dhs
  • Lynch, Jim. "Ten Tips for Donating a Computer." TechSoup.org. (April 19, 2009) http://www.techsoup.org/learningcenter/hardware/page5496.cfm
  • Roach, John, "Donate Your Unused Computer Power to Science." MSN Tech & Gadgets. (April 18, 2009)http://tech.msn.com/guides/green/article.aspx?cpdocumentid=4898078
  • Techsoup.org. "Links to computer recyclers." (April 20, 2009) http://www.techsoup.org/resources/index.cfm?action=resource.view_summary&resourcelist_id=144&style=recycle&set=products,
  • U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. "Plug-In To eCycling Partners."(April 18, 2009) http://www.epa.gov/osw/partnerships/plugin/partners.htm
  • U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. "Where Can I Donate or Recycle My Old Computer and Other Electronic Products?" http://www.epa.gov/osw/conserve/materials/ecycling/donate.htm