Safely Recycle or Sell Your Old Computer

Don't forget to wipe your hard drive, and other tips

Recycle button on a computer keyboard

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Some of us treat our computers like we treat our cars. We either fix them until they just fall apart or we ditch them at the first sign of major trouble and get a new one. Either way, at some point you'll get rid of one computer and buy another. If you're like many people, you probably have a stack of old computers in a closet somewhere. It's best to either trade-in or recycle them. In this article, we show you how to do it safely.

Don't Just Throw Your PC in the Trash

The Printed Circuit Boards (PCBs) and other various components in a computer are not good for the environment. When you're ready to trash your old PC, check with your local sanitation department for rules and regulations regarding the disposal of electronics. Sometimes a disposal fee's required, but there are many free options out there too.

There are various recycling programs for old computers available through companies like Best Buy, Apple, and others.

Backup All of Your Personal Data

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Before you buy that shiny new computer and ditch your old one, make sure you get all of your personal data off of the old one first. Use an external hard drive, a cloud backup like Dropbox or Google Drive, or writable DVDs to make a copy of your data. Check your backup to make sure it has everything you want on it before you move on.

Hold On to Your Hard Drive (or at Least Use a Disk Wipe Utility on Them)

Your computer's hard drive holds huge amounts of personal data, from family photographs to bank records and everything in between. You don't want some stranger getting a hold of this information. That's why many people choose to take the hard drive out of a computer and keep it before trading or recycling the rest.

There are bad people out there who buy old computers strictly for the purpose of using data recovery tools to extract personal information off of the previous owner's hard drive. Old hard drives are a huge treasure trove of information for would-be criminals, according to a 2007 study.

Hard disk drive
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Even if you format and repartition a hard drive, residual data (on HDD or traditional moving-parts-hard drives) often remains and can be easily recovered with forensic data recovery programs. It's shocking how easy it is to bring back a deleted file using such a tool. Some can successfully resurrect a file that's been deleted even with the deleted file residing on a drive that was reformatted by the computer's operating system.

Many times when you format a drive you are actually just wiping out file header and File Allocation Table (FAT) pointer record information. The actual data itself remains on the drive unless overwritten by other data or wiped with a specialized disk wipe utility that actually overwrites all the sectors on the drive with ones and zeros.

It's important to know that disk wipe utilities do a great job of clearing out a drive with extreme prejudice, but it's not outlandish to fear that some super genius will come up with a new data forensic technology someday that will read files from drives that were wiped even with the best tools out there. This may be a more paranoid take on personal privacy, but it's something we should all know and keep in mind before selling or disposing of a computer.

Many people choose to hold on to old hard drives instead of wiping them. They don't take up that much room and can always be used for other projects, such as putting them in a USB drive caddy and using them to move data from one PC to another when a network is not available.

If you choose to sell your old computer with the hard drive still in it, make sure you use a military-grade disk wipe utility on it first.

If neither of these options sounds good, you can always physically destroy the drive before recycling it. Punching a few holes in it with a power drill usually does the trick.

Make Sure to Eject All Your DVDs and Other Removable Media From Your Old Computer

People often leave a disk in their computer's DVD drive for ages. You may leave your operating system DVD in your computer for weeks on end or you may have left a backup copy of your files in the drive.

DVD disc inserting to player
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Unless you want the next owner of your computer to have this disk, you should eject it and put it away for safekeeping.

You should also check the back of the computer to make sure you don't have a USB thumb drive connected to a USB port. Thumb drives are so small now that you hardly notice them.

Sometimes that old doorstop of a computer might still be worth having around. You could set it up as a base for IP Security Cameras or use it as a household media server.