Throwing Out The Leftovers

Discarded computers, 8-21-01
If you got a new PC, printer or cell phone for the holidays, you may be wondering what to do with your old one.

Whatever you do, don't just throw it in the trash. Technology that was once useful in your home or office can be deadly if it winds up in a landfill. There are all sorts of noxious and toxic things inside your monitor and circuit boards. Some of our e-junk winds up being shipped overseas, where there may be inadequate safeguards to protect people from exposure to the dangerous chemicals and metals inside the equipment. The problem is so severe that California and other states are considering laws to require the recycling of monitors and other electronic equipment. Mandatory recycling is already the law in some areas.

If you are going to "throw it away," make sure you recycle it properly. The PEP National Directory of Computer Recycling Programs has links to recycling centers around the world.

One option is to donate it to a nonprofit organization or school. In some situations the payoff for generosity can be more than just knowing you've done a good deed. You or your business may be able to deduct the fair market value of the donation on your personal or business income tax return. The tax laws that govern the deductibility of non-cash donations can be a bit complicated, and they vary depending upon how your business is set up, so be sure to seek professional help.

But before you drop something off, make sure it's actually going to be useful. Unless it's for Goodwill or another organization that simply sells old equipment, you should first have a chat with the people who run the organization to find out if they really need what you have to offer. If they don't, look somewhere else for a worthy recipient. The same item that might be put to good use by one organization could be of no value to another. In fact, it could even be worse than useless if it winds up taking up space and time as staff members or volunteers figure out what to do with it.

Be especially careful when donating to a school. Just because you've heard that schools need computer equipment doesn't mean they necessarily need what you have to offer. A lot of classroom programs depend on certain types of equipment to meet specific needs. Some schools, for example, use only Apple Macintosh equipment and have difficulty integrating Windows machines. Others can use only equipment that can be connected to their campus network. Ironically, a lot of machines that have more than enough power for business applications are not able to run some of today's multimedia or Internet-connected educational applications.

Don't just donate a machine. Donate a solution. When you meet with the staff members, find out what they need to enhance their program. It may turn out that you have just the knowledge they need to solve a problem. Think about what you can do to help install and configure the equipment and software and how you can help them integrate it into their program by training staff members and volunteers and checking in occasionally to see that everything is going right.

A lot of people get new cell phones during the holidays, and the good news is that there is a use for those old phones. The wireless phone industry has its own Donate a Phone program, which gives used phones to victims of domestic violence who can use them to make free emergency calls. Many cell phone dealers, as well as some schools and nonprofits, gladly accept used phones.

Anyone who uses an inkjet printer winds up having to dispose of empty print cartridges. But those empties are worth $1.50 apiece to schools and nonprofits that participate in the Empties4Cash program. The company pays for all cartridges from inkjets with printheads -- Hewlett-Packard, Lexmark, Compaq, Samsung, Canon, Xerox and Apple. That does not include those from Epson and Brother, which don't have printheads. My son's high school makes money by collecting used inkjet cartridges from the community.

If you have used equipment to donate, seek out an organization or recycling program that really can use it.

The National Cristina Foundation seeks "to ensure access to computer technology and the sharing of technology solutions to give people with disabilities, students at risk and the economically disadvantaged the opportunity, through training, to lead more productive lives." To that end, it accepts PCs with 486 CPUs and better as well as some Macs, hard drives, monitors, and other peripherals and legal copies of software.

Gifts in Kind International helps companies "donate product efficiently and effectively to charities and schools in your hometown and around the world." The organization's Web site includes descriptions of the type of equipment needed.

There also are companies, such as the San Francisco-based HMR Group, which specialize in helping businesses and organizations recycle used equipment.

A syndicated technology columnist for nearly two decades, Larry Magid serves as on air Technology Analyst for CBS Radio News. His technology reports can be heard several times a week on the CBS Radio Network. Magid is the author of several books including "The Little PC Book."

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By Larry Magid