Are you one of those people who keeps hold of their old hardware? Bits and bobs like disk drives and cables, perhaps… or even something more valuable, like an old PDA or laptop. You’ve kept them boxed up in your office, or basement, loft, or garage.
And now you’ve decided it’s time to do something with this old hardware. Can you re-use it? If not, can you sell it? Or must it all be recycled?
In truth, there is no definitive, one-size-fits-all answer. Some old hardware can be reused. Other hardware needs to be carefully recycled. No doubt, you’ll have a few pieces of equipment that can be sold or donated.
How old is it?
The consensus seems to be that a machine of only a few years is ok to repurpose (keep in mind you might need to swap some parts like RAM, battery, fans, even thermal paste). Five years and older might be suitable for home use (e.g. a home media server), but beyond that, you could be getting into trouble if you repurpose that old of a machine for production purposes. In fact, a lot of IT pros suggest never repurposing old equipment as production machines.
Need to know what’s what? Keep reading, and I’ll break it down for you.
How You Should Re-Use Old Hardware
Reusing old tech in the right way shouldn’t be difficult. The tricky part is knowing what you can reuse, and what you cannot. Certain types of hardware lend themselves well to being resold. Others are more suitable for donations, or recycling. You might even upcycle some items of technology.
Note that there are several security considerations to keep in mind, particularly in ensuring your personal data is fully erased.
It’s important to choose the right outlet, however. For instance, sites like Gazelle.com are ideal for disposing of tablets and smartphones, and give you a bit of cash in return. On the other hand, eBay is good for computer hardware resales. While old printers should probably be given away (their resell value is very poor), laptops and games consoles do well.
Meanwhile, PC components like hard disk drives, solid state drives, RAM, and CPUs can also make you some money. Entire PCs can be recycled safely as per EPA guidelines if you don’t fancy taking yours apart.
Before you sign up and sell your gear, research which is most suitable for the hardware you’re disposing of. Consider where the item is going, and how it will be reused. Is someone else making money from it?
2. Repurpose and Recycle
Alternatively, you could just repurpose the hardware. This means recycling what you have to use it in a new way, or to refurbish it. For instance, you might have two identical laptops, neither of which work. However, between the two devices, you have enough working parts to get one of them up and running again.
A relatively new term, “upcycle” refers to the act of recycling a component or object in a new way, as part of a greater whole. For example, a wheel from an old bike might be added to a newer bike. Or that wheel might form part of some sort of manual water pump.
You have several options for old computer equipment. For example, an old PC’s power supply unit might be reused in another device. Alternatively, an old flatbed scanner might be upcycled into a 3D printer:
Set it up as a light-duty ‘Living Room’ PC
We have a small PC in our living room that’s often used for quick web surfing and to check email. Occasionally, our kids will come down and do homework on the communal PC when they get tired of being holed-up in their rooms. This can work particularly well if you have networked storage somewhere in the house, so people can get to their files whether they’re on a personal system or a communal one.
If you do have this type of communal PC, your first inclination might be to create separate accounts for each person. I’ve found this isn’t really necessary. Since it’s communal, no one really keeps private information on it.
The flip side is that you’ll want security software that’s as bullet-proof as possible. Since you have multiple users on one system, eventually someone, sometime, will hit a website that may attempt to download a Trojan horse or other malware.
Make it a Secondary Computing Server
If you’re a content creator, having another PC to help with distributed rendering chores can greatly speed up final renders for complex projects.
Each application handles distributed rendering a little differently, so you’ll need to consult your documentation. But typically, you’ll install a lightweight application on the secondary rendering system, which will take data and commands from the primary system and then return results when done. The main application on your production system, or a separate manger app, manages the rendering across multiple networked systems.
If you have a do-it-yourself frenzy and build your own systems, you may reduce the cost of your new system by salvaging parts from the old one. Good candidates for salvage include the case (if it’s not a proprietary, prebuilt system), the optical drive, the power supply, and, sometimes, the memory modules.
Depending on how much you actually reuse, the distinction between new system and one that’s simply been upgraded is a hazy one. If you replace the motherboard, CPU, memory, and primary hard drive, but keep the case, power supply, optical drive and graphics card, is that a new system, or one that’s been upgraded?
As noted above, you may need to take some precautions with breaking apart computer hardware. We’ll take a more in-depth look at this below.
Be Careful When Reusing These Devices
While some hardware can be reused, others should be disposed of if they’re no longer needed. But don’t simply send these items to the trash. Instead, you need to research how they can be safely dismantled. Certain components might be reused, for example; others might need breaking down in a way that’s safer for the environment than burying in a landfill.
In most cases, old batteries can still be used as long as they hold a charge. You will also need to ensure that the cell can also be safely used without causing electric shock. This applies to rechargeable batteries as much as it does to single charge batteries.
Opening a laptop battery is not a good idea unless you know what you’re doing. Different batteries behave in different ways; it’s comparatively safe to open some, but others are not so harmless. If you think you might have a chance of replacing the cells in a rechargeable laptop battery to revive it, do a search on Google and/or YouTube to get an idea of what is involved.
Recycling batteries differs from state to state, so you should check your local laws to find out what to do.
Another piece of equipment that requires some inspection, motherboards can generally be reused with some cleaning. However, it is important to test the device first, as there could be some inherent weakness. For instance, a fracture could have occurred, rendering the original computer useless. If defective, the motherboard becomes a fire risk, so should be safely disposed of.
If you’re planning to work with motherboards, however, be sure to take the right precautions. Cutting, drilling and even snapping a motherboard can release potentially harmful dusts. Dust masks and goggles are recommended!
This is where things get a bit dangerous. As you probably know, there are two types of monitor: CRT (cathode ray tube) and LCD. As long as these devices are working, you should be able to carry on using them. However, CRT monitors are not suitable for customization. They must also be disposed of safely. TVs and monitors that use CRT technology are capable of storing a life-ending electric charge. As such, unless you have the prerequisite experience, steer well clear.
Opening up an LCD monitor is far safer than opening a CRT. As long as the device is powered off and unplugged from the power supply, and you’ve taken anti-static precautions, it’s safe. But don’t go breaking open a monitor without first checking how. Every TV and monitor model is slightly different!
Check the EPA website for details on how to safely dispose of your old TVs.
Generally speaking data cables are not going to make much money, unless you have something that connects to an unusual or rare device. In this case, you might make a few dollars. Similarly, mains cables shouldn’t be resold, unless they’re for an unusual piece of kit. If you can’t sell them, and they don’t belong with any hardware you’re selling or giving away, cables will need to be disposed of safely.
Reusing old cables is an option, and if you strip them down you could employ them in a DIY project. Using a Raspberry Pi or Arduino? You’re in luck! Safe disposal is your last option: consider Best Buy’s recycling service for old cables and chargers.
Don’t Send It to the Landfill
To recap, there are three ways you can keep old hardware running:
- Repurpose and Recycle
Similarly, there are four hardware types that need special attention when it comes to disposing:
With so many different chemicals, elements, and plastics used in the construction of modern technology, it is vital that these devices are disposed of in an ecologically friendly manner. If you ever have any doubts, you should contact your local waste disposal service for advice.