Computers have become indispensable — and were once virtually un-disposable. Most computers contain rare metals and specialized chemicals that are difficult to recycle. Thankfully, a growing number of programs are available for recycling various types of environmentally hazardous electronic waste, and for extending the life of used computer components. 

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates 1.84 million tons of TVs, computers and cell phones were dumped in 2007, compared to 400,000 tons of recycled electronics. Add your computer to the recycled tally.

Here are some ways to recycle used computer parts, as well as ways to make sustainable computer choices and reuse outdated gadgets.

Choose the right products

Reducing concerns regarding used computers starts with seeking out the least toxic new computers. Acer and Apple promise to eliminate vinyl plastic (PVC) and brominated flame retardants (BFRs) from all their computers by the end of 2009. Cutting out these toxic chemicals will make them more eco-friendly and easier to recycle. HP, Lenovo and Dell promised to eliminate the same toxic chemicals, but have not set a deadline. Greenpeace closely tracks the sustainability of all major electronics companies, publishing comparative reports at least once a year.

New life for an old computer

No matter what type of computer you buy, consider finding a new home for the computer or its individual parts once you are no longer using it. Schools and nonprofit groups don't care if the hard drive is slow or the operating system is obsolete.

First, whether recycling a computer or donating it for reuse, be sure to erase all personal information and data. Several options are available for each operating system. Here is a good CNET video that explains the reasons and the process for wiping the hard drive.

Most Goodwill stores offer free electronics dropoffs. Goodwill works with Dell Computers to revive dead computers and get them into schools or community centers. Other organizations, including Close the Gap and World Computer Exchange, collect computers and send them to needy youth in developing countries.


Computer recycling

If computer parts are truly dead and unusable, don't just put them in the trash — or the recycling bin. E-waste disposal is more specialized, but recycling programs are available in many communities. Earth 911 has a ZIP code search function to help you find recycling programs in your area. The EPA also has a list of manufacturers' programs for taking back and recycling their used products.

Computer parts can become toxic e-waste in a landfill, but there are plenty of alternatives. Consider donating old computers for reuse, and recycling machines that are completely dead. Also look for eco-friendly options when buying a replacement computer.

Steve Graham originally wrote this story for It is reprinted with permission here.

Related story on MNN: Computer recycling made easy