Don’t toss that old computer

Electronics don’t belong in landfill

By BILL MEDLEY Courier & Press staff
writer 464-7519 or medleyb@courierpress.com

August 22, 2005

That new computer and sleek monitor might look
nice and clean right out of the box. They’re nothing like that dull, old,
slow system swept aside to the floor.

But before tossing that dying computer, there are a few things to think
about, experts say. It’s important to remove any sensitive data from an
old hard drive before donating it or tossing it out.

And people taking their old electronics out to the Dumpster might want
to consider the impact discarded monitors and circuit boards have on the
environment.

“It can be a problem, especially in regard to companies who
continuously upgrade their equipment every few years,” said Scott Dill,
co-owner of C & I Electronics. “They have 500 units, and if you take
that to the landfill, that’s going to be a problem.”

Dill’s company has been recycling computer components and electronic
parts for eight years. His customers range from corporations trying to
dispose of hundreds of pounds of old equipment to individual computer
owners who want to recycle their computers.

Dill said there is no law prohibiting individuals from disposing of
computers, but state authorities and landfill operators regulate the
amount of electronic waste that can enter landfills.

Many computers, cellular phones and other devices contain potentially
dangerous materials such as lead, arsenic, mercury, chromium and flame
retardants.

The National Safety Council estimates that nearly 250 million computers
will become obsolete by the end of this year. The group also says about
150 million mobile phones and their accompanying batteries will be thrown
away in 2005.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, obsolete electronics,
or “e-waste,” is a small fraction of all landfill materials – around 1 to
4 percent – but old electronic equipment accounts for 40 percent of lead
found there.

Dill said electronic components are becoming lighter and smaller, but
the decline in size is somewhat offset by the growing number of devices.

“There’s so many more devices out there, Palm Pilots, network cabling,”
Dill said. “They don’t weigh as much as they used to, but there’s more of
it.”

In addition to recycling a computer or donating it to a nonprofit
agency, several computer manufacturers offer trade-in and recycling
programs for users who have a computer nearing the end of its useful life.

Recycling programs vary by maker, but many programs are similar to the
one operated by Dell. Recycling an old Dell computer usually requires a
fee from the user, but those who purchase a new Dell system might qualify
for free recycling.

Many nonprofit agencies will also accept used computers in return for a
tax write-off. But it’s probably a good idea to call ahead before dropping
off that old monochrome monitor. Computers typically must have at least a
Pentium processor and include the necessary licenses for software before a
nonprofit group will accept it.

“I think donating a computer is a very good thing to do, if your
computer isn’t ancient,” said Vi Wickam, president of On-Site Computer
Solutions in Evansville.

Wickam also said it’s important to remember that sensitive data and
documents could still be retrieved from the old hard drive.

He recommends people looking to donate a computer format their hard
drives after deleting any sensitive information. The Windows operating
system provides a formatting procedure, and while it won’t provide 100
percent security, it will at least make it harder for someone to retrieve
sensitive data.

There are also several programs available that offer to “wipe” a hard
drive clean. But even those methods can’t secure data from the most
dedicated snoopers.

“It’s kind of like turning on a blender and mixing it up,” Wickam said.
“If you want to be 100 percent sure, you can take a hammer to
it.”