The continuing negative effects that COVID-19 is having across all segments of our society has many companies and organizations looking for affordable ways to help. One way that might be overlooked is recycling computers that are going to be discarded by donating them to nonprofit refurbishers that will pass them on to people who can’t afford them.
Typically, companies pay certified recyclers to take their used electronic devices, which then recover some rare-earth metals and remove some toxic parts from them before sending what remains to landfills. There are many nonprofit organizations, however, that will take used computers and laptops, replace any failed or failing parts, install a new operating system (usually a desktop Linux distribution but sometimes Windows) after wiping the hard drive, and give them new life with students, seniors or economically distressed families – which keeps them out of landfills for another five years or so.
This can be a win-win for companies, because by doing so they not only avoid the expense of the traditional recycling process, but also pick up a tax deduction in the process – while helping alleviate the digital divide that’s been rapidly growing during the pandemic.
Organizations involved in the process say that they’ve seen greatly increased demand for used computers since the arrival of COVID-19.
“All of a sudden, the most vulnerable and marginalized of our populations – that counted on the libraries and other public places – now couldn’t,” Susan Krautbauer, senior director of strategy and development at Digitunity, a nonprofit that helps connect those with computers to donate with organizations that need them, told ITPro Today.
“Then you start thinking about undeviced and under-deviced individuals, where now you’ve got kids having to learn from home,” she added. “There are five kids in a family, plus their parents are both having to work from home, so now one computer for the family doesn’t work either.”
Krautbauer said that although many corporations are onboard and donate their used computers on a regular bases, there are often stumbling blocks that keep organizations from making donations.
“Often, an executive, the human resource department, the corporate social responsibility department and even the CIO are saying they really want to do this, but there are existing contracts already in place for recycling that they can’t really get out of,” she said. “They’re like, ‘I really wish I could, but I can’t,’ because they’re already committed.”
Also, Krautbauer said, companies increasingly don’t own the workstations, desktops and laptops their employees use, but lease them – which means they’re returned back to the lessor when they reach end of life.
She said another reason companies aren’t taking advantage of this opportunity might simply be that they don’t know such alternatives to recycling computers exist or how to go about finding one. To help address that gap, we approached some nonprofit refurbishers with some questions to help organizations get started.
How Does IT Find a Nearby Refurbishing Organization?
Finding an organization that redistributes used computers can be as easy as going to a page on Digitunity’s website to enter your zip code and specify a search radius, which will produce a list of Digital Opportunity Network member organizations within your area.
Digitunity is part of the National Cristina Foundation, which was founded in 1984 with the purpose of promoting technology reuse instead of recycling computers and other technology in ways that take them out of circulation. Krautbauer said that every organization on the group’s list has been vetted to ensure that they are bone fide nonprofit organizations, meaning that any computer donation is eligible for a tax deduction.
There are other organizations that aren’t on the list, however, so if you don’t find an organization in your area, you can contact your local library, since most libraries work closely with such organizations in their area.
What Are These Organizations Looking For?
All these organizations are looking for desktop computers and laptops. While they’re not expecting the latest and greatest, they’re not looking for antiques either. In other words, that stack of old Compaqs with 32-bit processors isn’t going to be useful and should go through a more traditional recycling program.
Every organization we contacted told us that laptops are particularly needed in the age of COVID-19.
“Really, the need in the pandemic has been laptops, because obviously laptops have built-in webcams, and a lot of people are either being asked to do school or work remotely, so laptops have been incredibly in demand,” said Michael Abensour, executive director at Kramden Institute, which is based in Durham, North Carolina.
Ken Starks, founder and executive director of Taylor, Texas-based Reglue, noted that the demand for laptops is outstripping the supply.
“We are absolutely swamped with requests for laptops, since many school kids are back at home learning,” he said. “We placed 63 laptops in one month alone, but we are way short of them now.”
Starks said that another reason laptops are in demand is because many households where the donated computers are going don’t have internet access.
“Some parents are driving their kids to parking lots where the adjacent businesses have open Wi-Fi,” he said. “Access to high-speed internet here in this small town is still a valuable commodity, so picture yourself with two school-aged kids in a minivan trying to log onto a Zoom call with a 7-month-old baby getting fussy.”
This problem isn’t confined to Reglue’s rural Texas location, according to Abensour.
“A lot of schools are also extending Wi-Fi to their parking lots,” he said. “There are a lot of bus program projects in North Carolina, where they’re putting Wi-Fi on the buses themselves so [students] can do work on the buses.”
In addition to computers, most organizations are looking for computer-related items such as keyboards, mice, monitors, cables and RAM.
How Does IT Deliver Donated Machines to the Organization?
For businesses donating multiple computers, most refurbishing nonprofits will bend over backward to make responsibly recycling computers as easy and painless as possible; all the organizations we spoke with regularly offer to pick up local donations of multiple computers. Starks said that his small organization, which consists of himself and one full-time volunteer, will pick up larger donations within a 50-mile radius; otherwise, they should be shipped.
Larger organizations with more resources take that a step or two further and, depending on the size of the donation, are able to pick up computer donations coming from anywhere within the same state.
“We do free pickups if it’s enough quantity and quality,” Abensour said. “We have a dedicated logistics staff; we have three different vehicles, including a 26-foot box truck; we have dock space here. We do work with folks to make sure that if they have a lot of computers … we make it as easy and as simple as possible for them.”
Some organizations also have established logistical networks to get large computer donations from outside the area they serve.
“With further reaches, we have logistics programs that we work with to get those computers delivered to us,” Hilary Shohoney, executive director at Portland, Oregon-based Free Geek told us. “There’s a couple of nonprofit vendors that work specifically with groups trying to disperse goods throughout the states, so we do that as well.”
How Should IT Prep the Machine for Donation?
All of the organizations we contacted said that no prepping is necessary, although there are things you can do to make things easier for the organization receiving the donation.
“Oftentimes, if it makes sense for them to have it palletized, that’s really nice for us, but we can also … do that,” Shohoney explained. “It just depends on what their capacities are. We’ve dealt with companies that have entire IT teams that are palletizing it and getting it ready for us, and that’s a delight, but then we also have folks [from] much smaller operations. They have maybe 10 laptops. They put them in a postal bin, and that works too.”
Refurbishing organizations are also OK with hard drives being removed from computers before donation, which some companies do as a matter of policy or to meet regulatory requirements. (Colleague Brien Posey tested a range of hard drive destruction methods last year.)
"One of our biggest corporate donors as a matter of policy takes out every single hard drive and they give us tractor-trailers of computers, and that's fine," Abensour said, echoing what we heard from the other organizations. "Ideally, we'd like to have the hard drive, but we have plenty, so it's really not that much of a challenge. It was more of a challenge [several] years ago when hard drives were still pretty expensive, but the price has gone down dramatically."
Everyone with whom we talked also told us that removing the drives is really an unnecessary step in recycling computers unless absolutely required by regulations, as the data on the drives will automatically be destroyed beyond recoverability as soon as the machines are received.
"If it comes with a hard drive, when it comes to us, no matter what, we're going to go through our data erasure process, which is listed on our website," Abensour said. “That even includes people who said, 'I already wiped this hard drive.' We nod our heads say, 'Thank you, we're going to do it again,' because that's just a policy. We do it regardless to every hard drive that comes in."
Abensour made a special request that donaters avoid using BIOS passwords. "Those are always a pain, and we can't really get around them because it's in the BIOS. If they're donating Apple products, make sure to decouple them from their Apple password accounts,” he said.