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Field NotesDonate Your PC

Jim Lynch

The conventional wisdom for many years about the most cost-effective way to dispose of computers was best captured in a research paper, published in 2003 by Frances O'Brien of The Gartner Group, titled "PC Disposal: TCO's Last Surprise." This comparative analysis of PC disposal found that donating equipment was the most expensive option (out of six disposal options) due to the amount of time it took to locate the right charitable organization willing to accept donations.

Tips for Donating offers additional tips for donating and also obtaining donations at Some things to consider before donating are:

  • Don't hang on to IT equipment after you've upgraded to new hardware. Computer equipment loses its reuse value after five years. Likewise, cell phones typically reach end-of-life after three years.
  • Donate IT equipment that is less than five years old to refurbishers rather than directly to nonprofits or schools.
  • Package the accessories with the equipment, including the keyboard, mouse, printer, modem, software disks, and manuals that came with the equipment.
  • Keep a list of what you donated for your records and get a receipt. You may well be eligible for a tax deduction if you donate to a nonprofit refurbisher. In the U.S., 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, go to Canada's free Used Computer Evaluator (

Today it's a whole new ballgame. In fact, the U.S. EPA recently embarked on a campaign called "Do the PC Thing" that educates users on how to prepare their old hardware for reuse and offers a list of resources. This campaign is a part of the EPA's electronics recycling and reuse public awareness site, Plug-In To eCycling ( Click on the "Reuse It!" link for articles aimed at consumers or businesses.

On this site you'll learn that the most important issue with respect to donating or recycling hardware is protecting yourself. The "Do the PC Thing" literature offers basic pointers on hard-drive wiping and the legal requirements for data security and confidentiality. Whether you are disposing of your computer either for end-of-life recycling or for reuse, you must remove your sensitive data, such as passwords, documents, credit card information, e-mail messages, and Web logs.

Most electronics recyclers, refurbishers, and asset management companies provide data security services either by destroying hard drives or by using a disk cleaning software utility that overwrites data so that it is unrecoverable. Note that if your computers are earmarked for reuse, it is preferable to keep the computer hardware intact.

Reputable disk cleaning software uses U.S. Department of Defense 5220.22-M specifications. This type of software-based data cleansing systematically overwrites all addressable locations on your hard drive with a character, verifies the overwrite, and then overwrites all addressable locations again with random characters. In 2004, the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA Advisory LAA-006-2004) found that a single overwrite using Department of Defense standard software is sufficient to render electronic files unrecoverable.

It is now reasonably easy to do your own data sanitation. There are reputable freeware apps such as Active@ Kill Disk Hard Drive Eraser ( or Darik's Boot and Nuke ( If you have several computers to data clean, consider more robust commercial applications such as Blancco Data Cleaner ( or WipeDrive (

If your IT equipment is more than five years old or badly broken, one of the six disposal options that Gartner studied is end-of-life electronics recycling. There are now more than 900 companies that do this work in the U.S. To properly recycle older IT equipment, see the Electronic TakeBack Coalition's list of responsible recyclers (

Jim Lynch is the Program Director for computer recycling and reuse at, a San Francisco-based high-tech nonprofit whose mission is to supply low-cost hardware, software, and know-how to charities around the world.

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