By recycling one million laptops, we can save the energy equivalent to the electricity used by 3,500 American homes in a year, according to the EPA. This is one of many good reasons to recycle old electronics, yet recycling rates could be much higher. Only 38 percent of old computers that had reached the end of their useful lives were collected for recycling in 2009, and for cellphones that number was even lower at 8 percent.
Privacy and data theft concerns are often-cited reasons for why people hang on to old electronics. The average person may not know how to ensure a laptop’s hard drive is unreadable or that personal data has been removed from a cellphone.
Removing this data can be done in just a few steps, and we’ve compiled information and resources to help walk you through the process. Keep reading so you can recycle those old electronics and feel confident that your personal information won’t be compromised.
Back Up Your Data
To prevent anyone from accessing your data in the future, you’ll need to make sure it’s permanently deleted. Before erasing anything, though, be sure to back up your data. This may seem obvious or you may think there’s nothing you need saved on your old device, but it’s better to be safe than sorry.
There are plenty of options for backing up information, including external hard drives, flash drives and online options, so select a method that works for you. If you need help with this, Lifehacker offers advice about back up methods, and PC World explains what you should back up and how often.
Use a Data Erasing Program
Once you’ve made sure your data is secure elsewhere, you’ll need to erase all that information from your device. For laptops and desktop computers, this will require special software because simply deleting your files or reformatting your hard drive won’t suffice. There are programs that can retrieve deleted data if your hard drive has not been sanitized properly, according to Michigan State University.
To render the data on your drive unreadable, there are programs to overwrite your data with meaningless information, making it unrecoverable, explains Brown University’s Computing and Information Services Department.
If you have a PC, you can download a program like Darik’s Boot and Nuke (DBAN) or KillDisk and then burn it to a CD or DVD. Brown provides a list of these programs that includes pricing (many are free). Once you’ve made a CD or DVD using one of these programs, boot your computer from the disc. Best Buy’s Geek Squad offers a helpful video explaining this process.
For Mac users, Apple provides detailed instructions for how to securely erase your data. Instead of using a downloaded program, boot your computer using its installation disc and then use your system’s Disk Utility to do the erasure.
For both Macs and PCs, you can select how many times you want to write over the files. The more times you write over your data, the more secure it is, but keep in mind that the time it takes to complete this increases significantly the more times you overwrite. Apple explains that writing over data three times meets the Department of Energy’s standards, and writing over it seven times meets the Department of Defense’s requirements for erasing data.
For added security, you can consider encrypting all of your sensitive files before deleting them. According to PC World, a data recovery program could potentially restore a file, but wouldn’t be able to decrypt it.
To erase data from a cellphone, the EPA suggests deleting all information and following the manufacturer’s instructions for doing a factory hard reset. Then remove your phone’s SIM card and cut it in half.
With any of your electronic devices, if you’d rather not deal with the erasing process on your own, seek out a technology professional.
If You’re Still Concerned, Consider Physical Destruction
Overwriting the data on your computer or device will most likely keep anyone from getting at your personal information. Lifehacker points out, though, that a person with proper training, time and money could still potentially retrieve your data. This scenario is very unlikely, but if you’re concerned — and you don’t plan to donate the device for reuse — consider damaging the device or its hard drive yourself.
Be careful if you plan to hit a hard drive with a hammer or drill through it. Once you’ve done this, you can take the drive to your local e-waste recycling center.
Recycle or Donate
Once you’ve erased the information from your device or physically damaged it so it’s unusable, find an electronic waste recycler in your area. You can learn more about recycling computers, cellphones and other electronics here at Earth911.
If your computer or device is still functional, consider donating it to charity. The Dell Reconnect program, for example, will accept any brand of computer through Goodwill. Other local programs may exist in your area, too.
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This article was originally published on Aug 21, 2013. It was last updated on March 2, 2016.