Tips: Protecting Valuable Data While Recycling

It's estimated that only 10 percent of all discarded computers are recycled in the United States. Due to increased environmental awareness about the toxicity of electronic devices and laws that have passed in many jurisdictions prohibiting the disposal of electronics in local landfills, there appear to be a lot of missed opportunities to provide technological tools to individuals and organizations in need. Kroll Ontrack, a data recovery company, offers the following tips for recycling electronic devices and protecting critical business and personal data when you opt to do so.

  • Clear your computer of personal information and critical business data. Delete does not mean delete. Deleting everything from your computer's drives and folders and emptying the trash can on your computer does not guarantee your data is gone. Personal information or critical business data including the Internet browser's cache, cookies, history; e-mail contacts and messages; documents; recycle or trash folders; and all nontransferable software may still reside on your machine's hard drive. The first step in a safe disposal is to run a disk-cleaning utility that overwrites all the sectors of your hard drives, making your personal and business data unrecoverable.
  • Determine if your old computer can be reused. Computers less then five years old can be put to good use by someone else. Nonprofit groups, schools and many other organizations often depend on technology that is donated because it is too expensive to keep up with the latest products on their own. Options to donate/recycle include sending your device back to the original manufacturer, dropping off your device at a local recycler or refurbisher, or providing it directly to an organization in need. The advantage to going through the manufacturer, a refurbisher or a recycler is that they will "wipe" the hard drive of your data and ensure that the equipment they send to nonprofits is in good working condition and runs legal copies of software. To locate a refurbisher or recycler in your area, visit:

Whether you donate your computer directly to an organization or via a recycler, refurbisher or manufacturer, be sure you clarify which party is going to wipe your hard drive of your personal information.

  • Contact your local recycler or hardware manufacturer prior to donating. Call the organization or check its Web site to ensure that it accepts the type of computer you plan to give away. Some organizations, for example, will refuse anything older than a Pentium II.
  • Recycle old and broken hardware. Any equipment that is not working or is more than five years old should be tagged for recycling. A computer recycler will salvage useful computer parts and safely removing hazardous materials in the process before breaking down what's left.
  • Remember the accessories. If you can, be sure to include the keyboard, mouse, printer, modem, packaged software or any other accessories you use with the computer when you donate it. Schools and nonprofits can put them to good use, and most organizations only accept complete systems.

"Many communities hold special hazardous-waste collection days or designate centers where electronic waste like PCs and old cell phones can be dropped off for free. However, plenty of people still don't realize how to properly dispose of their electronics," said Jim Reinert, vice president of data recovery and software products for Kroll Ontrack. "While donating and recycling your machines is critical to the longevity of the environment, it is important to understand that valuable information -- financial information, irreplaceable and sentimental photos, videos, tax forms, contact lists and passwords -- are often still on the computer at the time of disposal. Don't let the good deed of donating your PC for recycling turn into a nightmare because the wrong person inadvertently got access to your most important data."

This article originally appeared in the 08/01/2007 issue of Environmental Protection.

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