Donating Old Tech? Don’t Donate Your Data!

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), donating or recycling consumer electronics conserves natural resources. Sending these electronics, which are made with valuable metal, glass, and plastic, to a landfill means that those base materials will have to be mined and manufactured all over again, leading to resource depletion, air and water pollution, and greenhouse gas emissions. As the technology in law offices is regularly refreshed and updated, reusing or recycling those outdated items is likely one of the best ways to avoid contributing to this problem.

However, if you do choose to reuse or recycle office electronics, be mindful to ensure that you remove any and all data from those devices. To be clear, that does not mean simply deleting the data and then emptying the recycling bin. It doesn’t even mean that you employ wiping software. The safest way to make sure that the data cannot ever be recovered is to hold on to the data drives themselves. In practice, this means that you need to figure out whether the device you intend to get rid of contains any data, and then determine whether it can actually be removed. Some devices, such as smartphones and tablets, store data in the main board, making it impossible to remove data from the drive. These items should not be donated. Other devices have physical storage drives (hard drives or solid-state drives). You should open up these devices and remove that physical drive; this will allow the device to be used without issue. And as for the drives? Store those in a locked filing cabinet for the rest of your life. You never know when you may need that data, and drives don’t take up much space. If you really don’t want to store them, well, that leaves smashing them with a hammer and throwing them into a firepit. However you handle them, be sure not to let them go out into the world. If all of that sounds daunting, call your IT person. Tell them to remove all data drives from devices marked for the disposal or the donation bin.

Once that data is removed, your device is safe for recycling or reusing. Also, keep in mind that devices without data drives can be safely donated without having to do anything to them. Things such as keyboards, monitors, computer mice, copiers, and all other sorts of peripheral devices can (and should) be easily donated. Still, make an effort to remove data from your more sensitive devices, so that they too may be recycled or reused. The EPA states that “Recycling one million laptops saves the energy equivalent to the electricity used by more than 3,500 US homes in a year. For every million cell phones we recycle, 35 thousand pounds of copper, 772 pounds of silver, 75 pounds of gold, and 33 pounds of palladium can be recovered.”

If you are looking for a place to donate your electronics, many charities will accept donations, and you may get an individual or business deduction in exchange. For example, Goodwill partners with Dell’s REconnect program to recycle electronics. It takes the following:

  • Desktop computers
  • Laptop, notebook, and netbook computers
  • Monitors
  • Printers
  • Scanners
  • Hard drives–internal or external
  • Keyboards
  • Mice (not the live ones, please)
  • Speakers
  • Cords and cables
  • Ink and toner cartridges
  • Software
  • Microsoft Xbox
  • Microsoft Zune
  • Microsoft webcams

If you would rather find a charity that will put your old devices towards education or vocational use, search the web for the keywords donate and computers. For example, try Computers with Causes and select your state on the map.

You can also run a search with your city or state included as a keyword. Adding New Mexico, for example, will help you find Adelante, a nonprofit organization that accepts computer donations, makes any necessary repairs, and then gives them away free of charge to various nonprofits and community members with disabilities. In addition, they run an internship program that teaches people how to refurbish and repair computer systems. Be sure to check the preferences of whatever charity you select. Adelante, for example, prefers computers that are four or fewer years old.

No matter which route you choose, consider donating your technology when it comes time for an office or personal upgrade. For no personal cost (as long as that data is removed!), you can help conserve non-renewable natural resources.

About the Authors

Carole Levitt
(left) is a principal of Internet For Lawyers, and is a noted expert on internet investigative and legal research, social media research, social media ethics, and technology for lawyers. Alexander Paykin (right) is the managing director of a successful boutique law firm. Carole and Alexander are active in the ABA Pro Bono & Public Service Interest Group.

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