When the chips are down

Many of us, like Michael Durham, have old computers we no longer use. So why is it so difficult to find a responsible way to dispose of them?
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So you have an old computer or two. They're cluttering your spare room, study or home office, having expired from hard use, or, more likely, having been superseded by faster and better-looking models. They've been pushed into a corner. They may work, or they may not, but you know you won't be switching them on again.

So you have an old computer or two. They're cluttering your spare room, study or home office, having expired from hard use, or, more likely, having been superseded by faster and better-looking models. They've been pushed into a corner. They may work, or they may not, but you know you won't be switching them on again.

Now the problem. What is the most responsible way to get rid of them? Recycling? The average computer may look like a heap of plastic and glass, but it also contains traces of gold, silver, palladium, copper and sometimes platinum, all of which can be recovered. There are perfectly usable bits of electronic circuitry and components in there. And some pieces of IT equipment - monitors - contain dangerous chemicals and gases. So just throwing them out so that they end up in landfill is not a good idea.

But why dump them? Most computers, however old and battered, still have a bit of life left in them. Someone somewhere, perhaps in a school down the road or in a faraway country, might be glad of your old PC - a bit slower, perhaps, than the latest model, a bit grubbier, but quite capable of refurbishment and a new life. So what do you do?

I started this inquiry with two has-been computers: a seven-year-old 486 desktop with some rather extensive bodywork damage, but which works; and a three-and-a-half year old Pentium III 10-GB laptop, which doesn't. I saw five options. I could give them away to a good cause; send them away to be environmentally recycled; dump them in a skip; put them in the attic; or give them to my friend Julian.

Putting them in the attic is highly tempting. Out of sight, out of mind, and might they acquire antique value over, say, 30 years? The truth: unlikely. Just plenty of dust. The novelty aspect for grandchildren in the 2040s will be slight, since there will be plenty of ancient laptops on display in museums, and anyway you never know who's going to get their hands on them and dump them in the street when you move house. Verdict: not worth it.

Charities. Probably the most feel-good option is to send them to a school in Africa or a UK charity. A handful of companies do this, but they will not take any old thing, so my computers would have to be split up. Graham Pitt, who works for Computers for Charity, says he would not want the old 486 desktop, but he would jump at the laptop - "for one of our UK charities, we have a waiting list of about 18 months for refurbished laptops."

Typically, charities pay about £200 for a refurbished PC. Giving to charity is sound because the computers are reused and their lifespan extended, so long as there is adequate support. But charity recycling schemes will generally only take IT equipment in bulk. Computers for Charity is unusual as it will collect a single, relatively new computer from anywhere free of charge. Older ones attract a handling charge of £10, and the company turns down really old machines. In the past 12 months, it has passed more than 8,000 refurbished computers to charity, with many going to schools in Kenya, Nigeria and Uganda.

"The first thing I ask is 'what speed is it and how many gigabytes?'" Pitt says. "And, of course, most people don't have a clue. To be any use a machine has to be a Pentium-III 450 megabytes or higher, and only three or four years old. Otherwise it will just go for reclamation." Verdict: a good option with a feel-good factor, but only for a recent machine.

Reclamation. If the deceased computer really is no good, arranging for it to be broken down and recycled in an environmentally sensitive way turns out to be surprisingly difficult. Almost none of the local authorities operate any kind of IT recycling scheme. Several reclamation companies handle old IT equipment, but only in bulk, dealing in old mainframe computers and company "fleets" of redundant hardware. AWA Refiners is one company that accepts old computers from individuals - but you will be charged £50 for collection, unless you are able to take it yourself to the company's works at Harlow, Essex.

The company charges £3.50 to dispose of monitors, even if they are brought to its door. "Recycling computers is an expensive business," says Steve Warrin, the managing director, who is enthusiastic about IT recycling but realistic about the economics. "At the moment it's strictly a sideline, only about 100 a week. We take apart process boards, plugs, sockets, magnets, iron and aluminium and we recover precious metals. Anything toxic or hazardous we dispose of properly." Verdict: strictly for eco-freaks at the moment.

It is a scandal that almost no local councils run a recycling scheme for unwanted IT equipment. Local authorities seem to struggle as it is with glass and paper; computers are way out of their league. I rang both local councils near me - Haringey and Islington - to find out if they could help. Neither considered it important enough to ring back.

An exception to this civic indifference is Richmond-on-Thames, which boasts a state-of-the-art recycling centre where old computers can be refurbished or broken down. The council has appointed contractors who decide on the fate of each piece of equipment.

Sue Duckworth, the recycling manager at Richmond, says: "If someone brings in a working computer, it will be passed on to a charity, so long as all data on the hard disc has been erased. Otherwise it is sent to a London salvage company." The service is free - but you have to get the equipment to Richmond yourself.

Apparently, no council has yet thought of kerbside collection arrangements or entering into consortia with other authorities to collect domestic computers so that they can be sold on in bulk to charities or reclamation companies. Councils argue that it would cost too much. Charities and refiners, on the other hand, contend that bulk recycling would be economic. Regardless, it doesn't look as if it will happen soon.

This situation may not last for ever: new regulations on greenhouse gases and CFCs eventually forced local authorities to make proper arrangements for disposal of old fridges, and a new European directive on the disposal of electrical and electronic waste (the WEEE directive) could do the same for old computers. Electrical retailers will be forced to take responsibility for disposing of equipment they have sold. Dixons and a number of other outlets will recycle old mobile phones. But the directive will take some time to be enforced. So into the skip it might as well go. Verdict: shameful.

Give them to a friend - in my case, Julian. This option is cheap, convenient and probably not too damaging to the environment. We all have a Julian in our lives. He loves tinkering with anything electronic. His house is awash with bits of electrical junk rescued from skips all over the Home Counties - a set of disco lights here, a chucked-out laptop there - and he spends insomniac hours taking them apart, mending them, and reassembling them in perfect working order.

Julian is like the dotty professor in Back to the Future - he thinks nothing of cannibalising four ancient PCs and making one that works. I've decided, therefore, that the best bits of my old machines will help to create a decent machine for the IT department at the school where Julian works.

Computers for Charity (01288 361199); AWA Refiners (01279 423743)