Old Computers Never Die - They Just Change Owners

Have you accumulated a lot of computer equipment, some of which you don't use anymore?

A man uses a forklift to move a crate of computer keyboards that were dropped off to recycle at the Computer Recycling Center in Santa Clara, Calif. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Our community sure has. We bought our first computer in 1989, upgrading to the 286 processor in 1991. Then came the first Pentium. Countless additions, gifts and upgrades later, many of those once “hot, new” technologies seem like ancient history. Such is the nature of the computer market.

According to the Hewlett-Packard Web site, more than 300 million outdated computers will be taking up space in basements and storerooms across the country by 2004. Whatever you do, don't just throw the equipment away. Why not? For a thorough answer, take a look at the informative article titled “Old PCs Toxic in Landfill Sites” at www.galtglobalreview.com/business/toxic_pcs.html. Here's the short version: Your computer is filled with more than 1,000 materials, many of which are highly toxic. Believe it or not, there's stuff in there like chlorinated and brominated substances, toxic gases, toxic metals, biologically active materials, acids, plastics and plastic additives. If these end up in a landfill or incinerator, they present an environmental hazard.

I certainly have my share of outdated computers. Recently I donated our 1991 pre-Windows computer system, which had been upgraded to a 486 processor. We gave it to a local St. Vincent de Paul thrift store. This will do just fine for someone who needs to do basic word processing, for example, and the money from the sale will help the poor.

There are probably thrift stores near you where you, too, can donate your old computers and peripheral devices. Or maybe you can look closer to home. I gave my old Pentium 100 mhz system to my 81-year-old mother, along with an older inkjet printer and an external 56k modem. She wanted to do some word processing and try e-mail and Web surfing, so now she has her first computer.

Then, of course, there might be local schools or charities that may be interested in taking your old computer equipment off your hands.

Here is another outlet: Hewlett-Packard will recycle your old equipment. For a small fee, between $13 and $30, you can get that old stuff picked up and either reused or recycled. Go to hp.com/recycle for the details. And this gets even better. HP will give you a coupon worth between $40 and $100 that can be used to purchase HP online merchandise. So you might actually end up ahead overall.

There is one important issue to consider when giving away your older computer: Do you have any information stored on the hard drive you don't want others to have? This could involve passwords, financial information or personal records. Before giving away your computer, it is best to reformat the hard drive, which will erase everything on it. Some older computers come with an “emergency boot” floppy disk that lets you restore the hard drive to its original, unused configuration. Place that in your floppy drive and reboot your computer. Then just type format C or whatever your hard drive letter is.

If you don't have such a disk and are running Windows 95, make a floppy startup disk for your system by going to Start>Settings>-Control Panel>Add/Remove Programs>Startup Disk tab>Create Disk button. After that, repeat the steps mentioned above for using an emergency boot disk. You should give a floppy boot disk along with any other disks and manuals that came with the computer to the individual or group to whom you are giving the computer. This will help them get it up and running correctly once again.

Although the above method should be enough for most people, one may really want to make sure nobody can bring back their old hard drive information. Just because something is deleted does-n't necessarily mean it's totally erased. The file reference information has been removed, but the file data still remains on the hard drive. Certain programs can bring this information back. This applies to both those who just erased files or have completely reformatted their hard drive. Download a free version of one of the many disk-erasing utilities that are widely available. One such utility is called East-Tec Eraser 2003 available at east-tec.com/eraser/index.htm. East-Tec Eraser offers erasing methods differing in speed and security. The slower ones match and exceed the specifications of the U.S. Department of Defense and can stop even the most sophisticated hardware recovery tools.

My 18-year-old nephew, Austin, asked what operating system was on the Pentium 100mhz computer I gave my mother. On finding out, he exclaimed, “Windows 95!” He was shocked — shocked — that something “so old” was still useful.

Chances are, your old computer equipment is still useful to someone, too. Not a teen-ager, perhaps, but someone!

Brother John Raymond, co-founder of the Monks of Adoration, writes from Venice, Florida.