Next year, the latest consumer version of Microsoft's Windows operating system, Vista, will be released. And while that could be good news to the major computer manufacturers, as well as for many users, it could also cause many headaches for businesses trying to figure out what to do with their old computers.

The problem isn't limited to Windows Vista, which could make many current machines out of date with its standards-setting new programs. In fact, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 2003 estimated that 250 million computers would become obsolete by 2008. All across the tech landscape, software and hardware companies alike are continually innovating, with the result of giving us reasons to buy new computers, printers --and junk the old. So what's the best way to do it?

The Donation Factor

Your first option might be to donate your PCs to a local school, or non-profit organization. Several are set up across the country to rescue old computer equipment from the junk heap and give them new life in classrooms in need of computers. and DigitalAid are two organizations that accept computer equipment and distribute them to schools and non-profit groups.

Donating also helps your bottom line. The Internal Revenue Service allows businesses tax exemptions on computer equipment donated to organizations with approved non-profit status.

This route also helps you sidestep the thorny issue of dumping your old equipment without contributing to environmental waste: The fact is that computers, despite their much smaller size, are actually much more toxic to the environment than an old car, which tends to be mostly scrap metal.

The Pollutants Within

Computers are filled with lead-based solder that can be harmful to ground water, as well as numerous plastic and silicon parts that aren't biodegradable in the least. Lead is found in glass panels of computer monitors and in the soldering of printed circuit boards. What's of concern is that lead could leach from landfills and contaminate drinking water supplies. According to the EPA, consumer electronics may be at fault for 40 percent of the lead found in landfills.

The EPA says that other pollutants from discarded computers and electronics include:

  • Cadmium, a toxin that can damage human kidneys, is found in semiconductors, infrared detectors and chip resistors.
  • Mercury, which accumulates in living organisms and can cause brain damage in people, is contained in position sensors, printed circuit board switches and telecom equipment.
  • Brominated flame retardants (such as PDBE and PBB) can cause cancer to the digestive and lymph systems and disrupt the endocrine system. They are found on printed circuit boards, plastic covers and cables.


Some of the largest computer manufacturers are offering businesses a way to discard their computers without harming the environment.

At Hewlett-Packard and Dell, programs have been set up to recover key components for recycling and prepare the equipment for proper disposal of the computers. HP and Dell mine old computers for chips and other parts that can be re-used, melted down to make new parts, or otherwise recycled.