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How to dispose of a laptop or computer the eco-friendly way

Thinking of throwing away your old laptop? Stop right there! We’ve got some greener ideas.

Updated

Closed laptop on blue blackground

Trying to figure out how to dispose of a laptop or old computer raises a whole host of questions. Can you throw away a laptop? Can you recycle it? How do you erase your personal data? 

And then there are the environmental concerns. We all know waste is bad for the environment, so how can you dispose of a laptop in an eco-friendly way?

Well, look no further. Here’s your step-by-step green guide to computer and laptop disposal.

Step 1: Ask yourself, do you really need to dispose of the laptop?

Energy, fuel and resources are used to build new computers and laptops. So before you start looking at how to dispose of your laptop, you need to ask yourself, do you really need to get rid of it in the first place? Do you really need a new one? And if your current laptop does have an issue, could it be repaired or have its software upgraded rather than replaced?

Why is this important? Well, it comes back to the core principles of reducing waste that goes to landfill – reduce, reuse and recycle (in that order). ‘Reduce’ in this context means reducing the number of natural resources you use – so you only buy things you really need. Hence the questions above.

The reason it’s important to reduce and reuse first is that they’re the most environmentally friendly options. Although recycling is better for the environment than sending something to a landfill, it still uses energy and resources like fuel and water. This means recycling inevitably increases your carbon footprint and environmental impact.

Step 2: Wipe your personal data (before you reuse or recycle your laptop)

If you’ve decided you definitely need to get rid of your laptop, it’s vital you take steps to remove your personal data before you dispose of your laptop or computer. That applies whether you pass it on, donate it, sell it or recycle it. 

Some charities offer to do this for you. But the safest way is to do it yourself, so here’s our advice...

Back up your files

Before you do anything else, make sure you back up all the files you want to keep. You can do this in a couple of different ways:

  • Use online cloud storage, like Google Drive, OneDrive or iCloud
  • Use an external hard drive – something you can easily pick up at any electrical retailer.

Do a factory reset

Resetting your laptop or computer to its ‘factory settings’ should leave only the bare operating system and pre-installed programs on the device – removing access to your files and any programs you’ve added. Check the manufacturer’s website or your laptop’s manual for advice on how to do this. 

Use data-shredding software

To be absolutely certain your data is gone, you can use data-shredding software. Windows 10 lets you shred data from within its factory reset options. But if you're using a different operating system, it's a good idea to run additional software. This Lifewire guide has some helpful suggestions.

Remove the hard drive

If you don’t want to try data-shredding software, the safest way to make sure your data isn’t accessed is to physically remove the hard drive from your laptop or computer before disposing of it. Just bear in mind that if you want the device to be reused, then you’ll need to replace the hard drive with a new one (although this is relatively inexpensive to do).

If you remove the hard drive, you may have the option to put it into an external caddy (depending on your computer model). These are available for about £12 online and will convert the hard drive into a USB hard drive that you can use to store and access data, just like a regular external hard drive (reusing in action.)

Alternatively, you can smash the old hard drive to make it unrecoverable, which will take some heavy blows with a hammer to accomplish.

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Step 3: Find a way for your laptop to be reused

If you know you don’t have any personal use for your old laptop and you’ve wiped your data, what’s next? 

There are lots of ways you can make sure your old laptop is reused, rather than simply recycling it or throwing it out. Whether they’re appropriate or not might depend on whether your laptop is in working order, of course. (Or if you think it could be repaired.)

If you decide to take one of the approaches below, we’ve also got some handy guides on how to clean a laptop and how to clean a computer.

Hand it over to the kids

If you have children, you could keep your laptop for their use – just make sure you have adequate parental controls and safe browsing enabled. Even if they’re too young at the moment, there’s bound to be a time they’ll need a computer for homework. So why not put it by for that rather than having to buy another new one? 

Pass it on to friends or family

Even if you don’t have any use for your old laptop, who’s to say your friends or family will feel the same? It’s always worth checking if someone you know would like to take it off your hands (and you’ll have helped someone you care about into the bargain).

Sell it or give it away online

There are lots of ways to sell or give away a laptop. From the usual marketplace sites like eBay, Gumtree, Freecycle and Facebook Marketplace to specialist sites that buy used laptops..

Donate it to charity

Donating your unwanted computer equipment to charity is a great way to help others. For some charities, like Computers for Charities, it’s important that the equipment is in good working order. But other groups, such as WEEECharity, have technicians who can repair them (and they even offer free collection). 

Step 4: Laptop and computer recycling (for when all else fails)

Computer components contain many toxic substances, like dioxins, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), cadmium, chromium, radioactive isotopes, mercury and lead. These can leach into groundwater or create air pollution if they’re incinerated. 

So if you can’t reuse your laptop, then your final option is laptop recycling. Whatever you do, don’t throw it in your regular bin or any ‘general waste’ receptacles.

Where can you recycle your laptop?

Your first port of call for laptop recycling is electrical retailers. Under the waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE) regulations, large retailers are required to accept electrical goods for recycling – regardless of whether or not you buy a new item.

In addition, if you’re buying a like-for-like replacement of an item, whether in a shop or online, WEEE regulations require all retailers (no matter their size) to take away the old, unwanted item for free. 

However, if for any reason you can't use a retailer's recycling system, there are other options. Many Household Waste Recycling Centres accept laptops and other electricals. And you can find out the places nearest you that recycle laptops by entering your postcode on the Recycle Now website.

Want to know more about what you can recycle?

So now that you know what to do with an old computer, maybe you’re wondering whether there are other things you could be recycling. We’ve got just the thing. Take a look at our ultimate recycling guide to find out more about what you can recycle.

Originally published