Here's What to Do Before Recycling or Donating Your Gadgets 

Used electronics for recycling
Damrong Rattanapong / Shutterstock.com

If you’ve recently upgraded to a new phone, laptop, tablet, or whatever, you’d probably like to do something proactive with the old one. Don’t just throw it in the trash: give it to a friend or family member, give it away, or recycle it. But there are a few things you should do first.

Your main concern is your privacy: you want to erase all your personal data from a device before it reaches another user. There are fairly standard ways to do this (a full reset), and more drastic measures if you’re worried that someone is specifically looking for used devices for some nefarious reasons.

There are also some security issues with older devices, especially the battery. But this tends to be handled by the recycler. Assuming your gadget is in working order, once you have deleted your data and all the superfluous parts, it is time for it to move to a new home.

First step: save and delete your data

No matter what you pass on – a phone, a tablet, a laptop, a game console, just about any kind of modern electronics – you want to make sure your personal data gets pulled out of it first. This is not only a privacy issue, but also a security issue: even with seemingly harmless data like your name and phone number, an identity thief can start a targeted harvest.

Windows Reset Settings Dialog

Fortunately, just about all of these devices include an option to reset the machine, erasing all your personal data, as well as stored files and programs. It takes a few minutes, but it’s quite reliable and very simple.

First of all, back up all important data – on a phone or tablet, it’s easy, as most of it is already synced with your Apple, Google or Amazon account. You’ll want to make sure that photos, videos, music, and text messages are saved. Computers can be more complicated because you will want to get a lot of data, if not all, from the storage drive.

Our sister site How-To Geek has easy save instructions for this process on all of the most popular platforms:

Once you’ve backed up all your data securely, it’s time to reset your device. Here are the relevant guides:

If you want a more secure way to permanently delete files and personal information, you will want to overwrite your device’s storage thus ensuring that it cannot be recovered with various advanced tools. There are several ways to do this, but the most important platforms to consider here are Windows and macOS.

Second step: collect (or destroy) the coins

When you’re ready to get rid of your gadget, make sure you remove any physical parts that stick out of it as well. For phones, it means SIM cards and MicroSD cards (if your phone supports them). On laptops and desktops, that means CDs, DVDs, camera cards, and of course anything plugged into your USB ports. On game consoles, search for game discs, game cartridges, and storage cards.

Computers have an even safer option: you can remove the storage drive. It’s more complicated and it will also remove the operating system. So you should note that it is not functional whether you sell it or give it away. But removing the hard drive or SSD, and either destroying it yourself or just throwing it away separately, greatly reduces the risk of anyone recovering data from it.

A hard drive removed from a PC
Michael crider

Remove the storage drive from a desktop computer is generally easy (although it can be tricky on small computers like the Mac Mini or iMac). Getting it out of a laptop is much more difficult, and may not be possible with standard tools if it’s a newer ultra-thin model with the storage soldered to the motherboard. Do a Google search in either case to see if you can handle it.

You might also be able to use other removable parts in a computer, especially graphics cards in gaming desktops. But chances are, if you’re willing to sell or recycle a computer, it won’t. there isn’t much that will come in handy in a new one. If you are sending the computer to a new user, either by donating it or giving it to a friend, be sure to give it to them in a condition that will be useful to them.

So if you donate a computer somewhere, leave the storage and operating system there after removing your data, unless you know that the organization can fix the computers on their own. If you’re giving a computer to a less tech-savvy person, you’ll probably want to leave it running as well. If someone is just looking for the parts or has the parts and the know-how to fix them, don’t hesitate to harvest those parts.

Clean

If you’re passing something on to a new user or giving it away, the polite thing to do is make sure it’s in the best possible way. You did this in terms of software, now is the time to deal with the hardware.

Woman cleaning cell phone
Progressman / Shutterstock.com

Dust your gadget, and maybe clean some of the grime from its nooks and crannies with isopropyl alcohol could not hurt. If your gadget is particularly dirty or grimy, you might want to chase it down with a toothbrush (making sure to avoid getting water in vulnerable ports, of course). Keyboards and mice can become particularly disgusting because they are constantly touched: there is a more complex process to clean and disinfect them completely.

Where to donate and recycle

Ready to get rid of some things? There is lots of places to donate items, and many electronics stores like Best Buy will collect electronics for recycling for free. Your municipal waste management or recycling department may also offer free recycling of electronic products – they earn a small fee by transferring electronic waste to industrial recycling companies.

If your gadget is in perfect working order, consider donating it to organizations that can distribute electronic devices to those who need them. There are tons of them, at least one of which is almost certainly near you: schools, churches and other religious organizations, or programs for the homeless and in need. Even senior centers and retirement homes often need electronic devices of all kinds, including tablets and laptops.

If you’re not sure if the location you’re going to accepts your item, just call and ask – someone will tell you if they can use it, and if not, will likely tell you where go instead. If all else fails, organizations like the Red Cross, Goodwill, and The Salvation Army will typically take almost anything that has worked and done in the past decade.

Those who prefer to donate to non-religious organizations may have very limited options. You should look for charities looking for donations in the nearest large city; urgent donation needs are often covered in the local newspaper or shared on social platforms like Facebook and Nextdoor.

And don’t forget that you can always ask your friends or family if they want or need what you can’t use anymore. Even if they don’t, they might know someone who does.

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