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Ten Tips for Donating a Computer

Jim Lynch and Ariel Gilbert-Knight

As companies, nonprofits, libraries, and individuals find reasons to upgrade their computers, the problem of how to safely discard used equipment continues to grow.

There are many reasons to donate or recycle your used equipment:

  • 75% of the fossil fuels and energy used by a computer are actually consumed during manufacturing. Extending the computer's lifespan through reuse means more return on that initial environmental cost.
  • Every computer dumped into a landfill represents a missed opportunity to provide technology and tools to individuals and organizations across the digital divide.
  • Even if a computer cannot be reused, recycling ensures that valuable raw materials are recovered from used computers and that any waste is disposed of in an environmentally sound fashion.

Unfortunately, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)'s Plug in to eCycling program, only 15 to 20 percent of computers and other electronic devices are being recycled in the United States (latest statistics are from 2007).

TechSoup has a long history of working with Microsoft, the U.S. EPA, the Electronics Takeback Coalition, and other organizations to improve the environment and bridge the digital divide by helping consumers properly donate or recycle computer equipment. We also have expertise in computer equipment refurbishing through our Refurbished Computer Initiative (RCI). It provides reliable, warrantied desktop and laptop computers to U.S. nonprofits at the lowest possible cost.

Below are some tips for passing along your used but still useful equipment.

1. Determine if Your Old Computer Can Be Reused

If your computer is less than five years old, chances are it can be put to good use by someone else. Usually, the lifespan of a computer is seven to eight years. Extending the computer's lifespan through reuse provides the highest environmental benefit of all electronics disposal alternatives.

2. Consider Donating Newer Equipment to a Refurbisher

You may be tempted to donate equipment directly to a favorite local school or charity. However, keep in mind that most organizations have very specific technology needs. A donated computer might not be a good fit. Refurbishers are better equipped to repair and upgrade older computers. They will ensure that equipment works well and runs legal software copies and that any e-waste is disposed of properly. They will pass on ready-to-use equipment to those who need it, often at little or no cost to the recipient.

Refurbishers work with newer equipment that can run current software programs. Therefore, if your computer is more than five years old, it's better to send it to a recycler.

Find refurbishers that accept donated IT equipment via the directory of Microsoft Registered Refurbishers. Most Microsoft Registered Refurbishers also accept Macintosh products. If you are planning a large donation of more than 50 computers, please consider donating to TechSoup's Refurbished Computer Initiative.

3. Recycle Older and Broken Hardware

Any equipment that is not working or is more than five years old should go to end-of-life recycling, meaning responsible destruction. A computer recycler is a business or organization that salvages useful computer parts before breaking down what's left, safely removing hazardous materials in the process. Note that some recyclers will charge a fee to accept old computer equipment, especially monitors.

For listings of recycling drop-off locations in your area, visit:

4. Choose a Responsible Recycler

You've probably seen or heard horror stories about dangerous and irresponsible electronics recycling. However, there are certification programs for recyclers that can help you feel good about the recycler you choose.

Both the Responsible Recycling Practices (R2) and the e-Stewards® programs require recyclers to demonstrate that they meet specific standards for safe and responsible electronics recycling. They include environmental safety, worker health, and data security standards. You can learn more about certification programs at the EPA's Certification Programs for Electronics Recyclers page.

5. Contact the Refurbisher or Recycler Before Donating

Call the organization or check its website to ensure that it accepts the type of computer you plan to give away. Some refurbishing organizations, for example, will refuse anything older than a Pentium III. Many recycling and refurbishing organizations also have specific locations where equipment can be donated, while others have delivery instructions they expect donors to follow.

6. Remember the Software, Documentation, and Accessories

If you can, include the keyboard, mouse, printer, modem, packaged software, and any other accessories you have used with the computer. They can almost always be utilized by schools and nonprofits, and most organizations only accept complete systems.

Also pass along the original disks, media, Certificate of Authenticity sticker, user manual, and other documentation that came with the equipment. Keeping the Certificate of Authenticity sticker (usually on the computer) intact is generally the most important thing to remember. This allows refurbishers to inexpensively re-license and reload Microsoft Windows and Office software on the donated machines.

7. If You Clear Your Computer of Personal Information Yourself, Use Disk-Cleaning Software

The best way to protect against any unauthorized use of personal information is to use a disk-cleaning tool that obliterates all data on the hard drive. "Personal information" includes your Internet browser's cache, cookies, history; your email contacts and messages; your documents; your recycle or trash folder; and all nontransferable software.

Below are examples of recommended disk-cleaning utilities.

  • Commercial Windows Disk-Cleaning Software:
  • Macintosh Disk-Cleaning Software:
    • Disk Utility (built-in in Mac OS X, under "Security Options")

8. Keep a List of What You Donated for Your Records

Remember that tax season will always return — and you are likely eligible for a deduction if you donate to a nonprofit refurbisher or recycler. Most school or nonprofit refurbishers and recyclers can provide a tax receipt upon request. Business donors can deduct the un-depreciated value of the computer, and individuals can deduct the current market value of a computer. To determine the fair market value of a computer, use an evaluator tool like GadgetValue. For more information on tax laws related to computer donation, see Section 170 of the Federal Income Tax Code.

9. Find Additional Information on Electronics Recycling

For more information on the urgent need to recycle discarded IT equipment properly, see the Electronics Takeback Coalition's overview of the problems created by computer dumping and the EPA's eCycling Frequently Asked Questions.

10. Find Additional Information on Refurbishing

  • If you are interested in donating your office computers, visit the RCI page.

This article was originally written by Jim Lynch in September 2008 and was updated by Ariel Gilbert-Knight. Find additional tools and tips for greening your nonprofit through TechSoup's GreenTech Initiative, where social benefit organizations can share and learn more about technology choices that can help to reduce our overall impact on the environment.

Image: Donate Computer, Shutterstock