Getting rid of an old computer? Here's how to make sure you recycle it safely
When you're done with your old laptop, Mac or PC, don't just throw it in the rubbish. Make sure you recycle it properly, including safely removing any personal data on your computer's hard drive.
Recycling an old computer can be relatively straightforward. When you buy a new electrical item such as a PC or laptop, the retailer you buy from is legally obliged to help you safely and responsibly dispose of the item you are replacing.
In practice, this means that retailers should either:
- provide a free, in store, take-back service for your old item when you buy a new version
- set up an alternative, free take-back service.
If the seller cannot provide either of the above, they must contribute to the cost of local recycling services.
Whichever service a retailer provides, they must provide free written information, including details of the service, how electrical equipment can be reused and recycled, and why electrical items need to be separated from other household rubbish. The information that retailers provide can include posters in-store, online information or printed leaflets.
But if you can't use a retailer's recycling system, there are plenty of other options, which we explain below. We also explain how to wipe your personal data from your old laptop or PC before you dispose of it.
Computer recycling schemes
One of the best recycling services we've come across is called WeeeCharity. This charity will collect your old computing equipment free of charge from your home. It will also offer to wipe your data securely, free of charge. WeeeCharity donates refurbished computers to those in need, or else disposes of them in an environmentally responsible manner.
Alternatively, your local council might run a scheme for recycling old computers (but it might charge for collection). For more details, go to the Environment Agency Website or contact your council.
You can also enter your postcode at the Recycle Now website to see whether there’s a recycling scheme near you. Alternatively, the Freecycle Network will help you give away your old machine, and Computer Aid International sends computers to developing countries.
In all cases, it's essential to take some steps to securely remove the data on your computer. Some charities offer to do this for you. If you'd prefer to take matters into your own hands, follow our advice below.
Factory reset your computer before recycling it
Before recycling a laptop or desktop, you should reset it to its ‘factory settings’. In theory, this leaves only the bare operating system and pre-installed programs on the device – removing access to your files and any programs you’ve added.
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It's essential to make sure you've backed up all the files you want before you begin this process. Store them safely on an external hard drive, your new computer, or in online cloud storage. If you wish to reinstall software from your old computer onto a new one, note down the licence keys. You'll need these to install paid-for software (including Microsoft Office) on a new machine.
Read our full guide on how to factory reset a computer
Use data-shredding software
Scrapped computers can end up being recycled anywhere, often with the components stripped out to extract valuable metals. But it’s also possible to extract potentially sensitive data at this point, even with a computer that's been factory reset as per the steps above.
To be certain your data is gone, you should consider using data-shredding software. Windows 10 lets you shred data from within its factory reset options. If you're using a different operating system, it's a good idea to run additional software.
Shred data permanently with our guide to wiping a hard drive
Remove the hard drive
If you’re recycling a laptop or desktop and would prefer not to dabble with data-shredding software, the safest way to make sure your data isn’t accessed is to physically remove the hard drive.
You can put an old hard drive into an external caddy - available for about £12 online. This will convert it into a USB hard drive that you can use to store and access data, just like a regular external hard drive.
Alternatively, you can smash the old hard drive to make it unrecoverable. It's physical work - you'll need to destroy it with a few satisfying blows of a hammer to break the ‘platters’ that hold the data.