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Recycle Old Electronics
Safely and Responsibly

Lucky enough to get a shiny new laptop, iPad or Kindle for the holidays? What do you do with the old stuff? Simply throwing it away is not an option since the device contains personal data and may have environmentally harmful components.

Remove Your Information Securely. Deleting data before discarding an old device is NOT enough. Deleting doesn’t actually erase information, but simply removes it from the file directory and makes the space available for reuse. Think of the deleted file as a library book that has been removed from the catalogue, but still sits on the shelf — it is there to read if you can find it. That is why data can usually be recovered from damaged disks.

Antikythera Mechanism

You want to make sure that all personal data have been removed from any device you dispose of. One way is to remove the storage medium and physically destroy it. But that’s no good if you want to give or sell the equipment to someone else.

To render the data unreadable, you need to write over the deleted files with random ones and zeros, or encrypt them. Some equipment has this ability built-in; others require additional software. For example, Mac OS X gives you the option to "Secure Empty Trash" when you delete files, and its Disk Utility software has the options to securely erase existing free space and securely reformat a disk.1 For the iPad and iPhone, iOS provides an "Erase All Content" option which is supposed to eradicate everything on the device except the operating system

Windows users typically use third-party software to erase disks securely, although Windows 8 does have an option for secure rewriting when you reinstall the operating system. A November 2013 article in Consumers Reports contains practical solutions for most popular computers, phones, tablets and gaming consoles.2

Dispose of Your Gear Responsibly. Many electronic devices contain components that are dangerous or harmful to the environment if discarded with ordinary household waste. CRTs from old-style TVs and computer monitors have been barred from Massachusetts solid waste disposal facilities since April 2000.

The Massachusetts Energy and Environmental Affairs web site has suggestions for donating and recycling used equipment and links to charities and manufacturers that accept these items. Staples provides a convenient service — the company’s web site states that they will accept for recycling up to six items per day at any of their retail stores, even if the items were purchased elsewhere.

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  1. For details, Eckel, Erik. "Securely erase files in Mac OS X." techrepublic.com. June 1, 2011.
  2. Safford, Matt. "Avoid ID theft and protect personal data when getting rid of a gadget." ConsumersReports.org. November 2013.

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Updated February 9, 2014.