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How to recycle your old computer

By Michael Passingham

When you're done with your old laptop, Mac or PC, don't just throw it in the rubbish. Make sure you recycle it properly with the help of our guide.

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When you buy a new electrical item such as a PC or laptop, the retailer you buy from is legally obliged to help you safely and responsibly dispose of the item you are replacing.

In practice, this means that retailers should either:

  • provide a free, in store, take-back service for your old item when you buy a new version
  • set up an alternative, free take-back service.

If the seller cannot provide either of the above, they must contribute to the cost of local recycling services.

Which ever service a retailer provides, they must provide free written information about it, including details of the service, how electrical equipment can be reused and recycled, and why electrical items need to be separated from other household rubbish. The information that retailers provide can include posters in-store, online information or printed leaflets.

But if you can't use a retailer's recycling system, there are plenty of other options, which we explain below. We also explain how to wipe your personal data from your old laptop or PC before you dispose of it.

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Computer recycling schemes

Some third-party companies offer a service where you can return your old computer for nothing – ask before you buy. If not, your council may run a scheme (but might charge for collection). For more details, go to the Environment Agency Website or contact your council.

You can also enter your postcode at the Recycle Now website to see whether there’s a recycling scheme near you. Alternatively, the Freecycle Network will help you give away your old machine, and Computer Aid International sends computers to developing countries.

In all cases, it's essential to take some steps to securely remove the data on your computer.

Factory reset your computer before recycling it

Before recycling a laptop or desktop, you should reset it to its ‘factory settings’. In theory, this leaves only the bare operating system and pre-installed programs on the device – removing access to your files and any programs you’ve added. 

It's essential to make sure you've backed up all the files you want before you begin this process. Store them safely on an external hard drive, your new computer, or in online cloud storage. If you wish to reinstall software from your old computer onto a new one, note down the licence keys. You'll need these to install paid-for software (including Microsoft Office) on a new machine.

How to factory reset a computer

In Windows 7 and 8, click the Start button, search recovery then click Recovery. This will bring up the recovery program. Click Advanced recovery methods and then Return your computer to the factory setting.

This deletes all the files and programs you’ve added to your PC since purchase. The files can, with work and know-how, be recovered – but such a clean-up should be adequate if you’re simply passing an old laptop onto a family member.

In Windows 10, click Start > Settings > Update & security > Recovery. Here, you should see various options. Each performs a different type of recovery Click Get started here for two choices – Keep my files or Remove everything. Select the latter to wipe your PC. You'll be presented with two options. The first, Just remove my files, deletes everything off your hard drive. Data could still theoretically be recovered by a determined data-miner. For a more secure option, pick the second choice - Remove files and clean the drive. This performs additional data-wiping, rather like using data-shredding software (see below).

You can access similar tools on a Mac by restarting the machine and holding down the Command and R keys when you hear the startup sound to launch OS X Recovery. 

Use data-shredding software

Scrapped computers can end up being recycled anywhere, often with the components stripped out to extract valuable metals. But it’s also possible to extract potentially sensitive data at this point, even with a computer that's been factory reset as per the steps above. To be certain your data is gone, you should consider using data-shredding software. Windows 10 lets you shred data from within its factory reset options (see above). If you're using a different operating system, it's a good idea to run additional software.

There are numerous tools for performing a data deep clean, such as Eraser – available from http://eraser.heidi.ie/. The program works within Windows – when you right-click on a file or folder you can click on Eraser for the option to Erase data completely. By default, the program is set to overwrite data 35 times, which can take several hours on a large hard drive. 

Beware: once deleted, there is no recovering your data. Don’t forget to apply the process across your entire computer, including the Recycle Bin.

Remove the hard drive

If you’re recycling  a laptop or desktop and would prefer not to dabble with data-shredding software, the safest way to make sure your data isn’t accessed is to physically remove the hard drive. 

You can put an old hard drive into an external caddy - available for about £12 online. This will convert it into a USB hard drive that you can use to store and access data, just like a regular external hard drive. 

Alternatively, you can smash the old hard drive to make it unrecoverable. It's physical work - you'll need to destroy it with a few satisfying blows of a hammer to break the ‘platters’ that hold the data.

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