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?

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 They're cluttering your spare room, study or home office, having expired from hard use, or, more likely, having been superseded by faster and better-looking models.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 They're cluttering your spare room, study or home office, having expired from hard use, or, more likely, having been superseded by faster and better-looking models.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)

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

MBDA UK Ltd: Electronic Sub-System Design Verification engineer

Flexible working, annual bonus, pension & more.: MBDA UK Ltd: What’s the oppor...

MBDA UK Ltd: Test Systems Architect

Competitive salary & benefits: MBDA UK Ltd: What’s the opportunity? MBDA has e...

MBDA UK Ltd: Test Systems Design Engineer

Competitive salary & benefits: MBDA UK Ltd: What’s the opportunity?MBDA has en...

MBDA UK Ltd: PCB Technologies Engineer

Competitive salary & benefits: MBDA UK Ltd: What’s the opportunity?MBDA has en...

Day In a Page

Fifa corruption: The 161-page dossier that exposes the organisation's dark heart

The 161-page dossier that exposes Fifa's dark heart

How did a group of corrupt officials turn football’s governing body into what was, in essence, a criminal enterprise? Chris Green and David Connett reveal all
Mediterranean migrant crisis: 'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves,' says Tripoli PM

Exclusive interview with Tripoli PM Khalifa al-Ghweil

'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves'
Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles: How the author foretold the Californian water crisis

Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles

How the author foretold the Californian water crisis
Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison as authorities crackdown on dissent in the arts

Art attack

Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison
Marc Jacobs is putting Cher in the limelight as the face of his latest campaign

Cher is the new face of Marc Jacobs

Alexander Fury explains why designers are turning to august stars to front their lines
Parents of six-year-old who beat leukaemia plan to climb Ben Nevis for cancer charity

'I'm climbing Ben Nevis for my daughter'

Karen Attwood's young daughter Yasmin beat cancer. Now her family is about to take on a new challenge - scaling Ben Nevis to help other children
10 best wedding gift ideas

It's that time of year again... 10 best wedding gift ideas

Forget that fancy toaster, we've gone off-list to find memorable gifts that will last a lifetime
Paul Scholes column: With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards

Paul Scholes column

With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards
Heysel disaster 30th anniversary: Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget fateful day in Belgium

Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget Heysel

Thirty years ago, 39 fans waiting to watch a European Cup final died as a result of a fatal cocktail of circumstances. Ian Herbert looks at how a club dealt with this tragedy
Amir Khan vs Chris Algieri: Khan’s audition for Floyd Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation, says Frank Warren

Khan’s audition for Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation

The Bolton fighter could be damned if he dazzles and damned if he doesn’t against Algieri, the man last seen being decked six times by Pacquiao, says Frank Warren
Blundering Tony Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

Blundering Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

For Arabs – and for Britons who lost their loved ones in his shambolic war in Iraq – his appointment was an insult, says Robert Fisk
Fifa corruption arrests: All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue

Fifa corruption arrests

All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue, says Ian Herbert
Isis in Syria: The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of President Assad and militant fighters

The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of Assad and Isis

In Syrian Kurdish cantons along the Turkish border, the progressive aims of the 2011 uprising are being enacted despite the war. Patrick Cockburn returns to Amuda
How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields: Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape the US

How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields

Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape to the US
Stephen Mangan interview: From posh buffoon to pregnant dad, the actor has quite a range

How Stephen Mangan got his range

Posh buffoon, hapless writer, pregnant dad - Mangan is certainly a versatile actor