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No dumping allowed

Getting rid of old computer equipment the right way.

Now that we’re shaking away the cobwebs of winter, our thoughts invariably turn to cleaning house. And with glistening flatbed screens and 1.5 terahertz computers still fresh out of the giftwrap, those ancient 400MHz Pentium IIIs and 17-inch monitors in the closet seem to be taking up a lot of space.

Well, in your spring-cleaning fervor, don’t think of trashing your old technology. Functional computers, even ancient ones four or five years old, can still have a useful life ahead of them–and earn you cash or tax credits. And if you need a little more encouragement, trashing computers could land you a honkin’ great fine.

Companies that dispose of eight or more computer items per month (to the dump or even to a storage facility) fall into the EPA’s crosshairs. The glass in a computer monitor or television can contain more than 6 pounds of lead compounds, and there are all kinds of flame-retardant chemicals and toxic metals in computer circuit boards. Putting stuff like this into a landfill can get you into big trouble.

Resell, reuse, recycle

Reselling computers is a fairly labor-intensive task. Naturally, before you consider waving goodbye to a computer, you must wipe all your data off the hard drive (don’t just delete it-use a program like Norton Utilities’ Wipe Info tool to eradicate all traces of the file). Unless you’re prepared to transfer the license of your software (that is, ship the disks and get new software), you should also remove that to avoid being branded a software pirate. This also applies to operating system software, but you’ll probably be getting a new OS when you get a new computer, so this is less of a problem.

Well-configured computers less than three years old may fetch a couple hundred bucks if auctioned on eBay or CNET’s or Yahoo’s auction sites, but you shouldn’t be too hopeful in an auction market that sells well stocked brand-new 700MHz AMD Duron systems for around $400 with warranties.

If you happen to have a local “chop shop” that can refurbish and resell computers, it’s a good first port of call–if only because shipping costs keep the value of older computers way down. But bear in mind that older computers may not even have much value for spare parts–a 2GB hard drive was great five years ago, but now it’s almost more useful as a paperweight.

Another resale option is to trade in your old computer when you buy a new one–a service that’s provided by Dell, IBM, Gateway, and Hewlett-Packard. But here too, there are drawbacks. When I phoned Gateway’s sales line, for example, I actually had to explain the company’s trade-in policy to the sales rep. And even if you get a rep who understands how the program works, you won’t make much money. I priced a few well-maintained but low-end computers from my office, bought three years ago. Dell, Hewlett-Packard, and IBM gave me quotes, but none reached any higher than $20. I’m under no illusions about the value of an old computer, but the 64MB of RAM in it alone could fetch more than the trade-in offered.

Charitable clearinghouses

So much for turning a fast buck by selling used PCs. A much better bet is to donate them to a registered charity. Sure, you don’t get a red cent for this, but you will often get an IRS 502(c)(3) receipt that you can use to qualify for tax deductions, and that’s often worth more than a little raw cash. (Your accountant could probably fill you in better about that.)

To find a local nonprofit that’s looking for computers, check out the international directory of computer recycling programs at Anne Bubnic’s PEP site for parents, educators, and publishers. This directory lists organizations by region that will handle donations of computers for refurbishment and reuse. The listings include Web sites, addresses, and other contact information, plus the kind of hardware they’ll consider taking. The PEP site list is pretty extensive in terms of the organizations it lists and the locations it covers–all over the United States and Canada, and into several other continents and islands too.

PEP’s site also lists some national organizations that act as clearinghouses for good causes, including the National Cristina Foundation and Gifts In Kind America. These clearinghouses act as middlemen between donors and good causes, and can handle large or small donations. The Cristina Foundation, for example, asks you to fill out a form on its Web site, and tries to find a match from its prescreened database of charitable causes in need of similar hardware. Gifts In Kind prefers e-mailed or faxed descriptions. If the clearinghouse finds a match, they’ll fill both parties in on the details, and leave you to either ship or deliver the goods.

True, you do have to handle delivery costs, but look at it as a cost of doing business, and the key to a tax advantage for this year. The clearinghouse foundation makes sure you get tax-deductible receipts for donations, which should offset any shipping costs.

And what if I don’t?

It’s human nature to try to get by with as little work as possible. But don’t try to avoid responsibility when disposing of your old computers. A trip to the Dumpster can land you with a heavy fine (one that varies depending on the state you’re based in). New Jersey, for example, charges $2,000 for each violation. This can rack up substantial punishments; according to Back Thru the Future Micro Computers, a computer recycling company, a New Jersey corporation was hit with a $120,000 bill for failing to maintain proper disposal records.

So just what are the regulations? If your organization accumulates more than 15 old monitors or CPUs a month in one location, you are a de facto small-quantity universal waste handler. This means that you have one year to dispose of an item properly. And you have other responsibilities too: You have to train your employees in handling universal waste to prevent its release, record where it is stored (using such terms as universal waste: monitor), and shipping it offsite only to registered universal waste facilities. You have record-keeping responsibilities, too. Because of the one-year storage maximum, you have to maintain an inventory system that tracks how long items are stored, and you must keep your disposal records for at least three years after shipment–including the name and address of the ship-to location, the quantity and type of waste shipped, and the date shipped.

The federal EPA gives some leeway: There are small-quantities exemptions for individuals or organizations that discard less than 220 pounds (eight monitors’ worth) of hazardous waste per month-but this waste still must go to facilities authorized to receive solid waste.

To complicate matters, not every state is as forgiving: California has no small quantity exemption, which means that theoretically, any entity in California that stores an unused computer monitor is probably violating the law and is subject to fines of up to $25,000 per infraction. All discarded monitors should be manifested (that is, tracked in every step of the disposal process with state-issued manifest documents). This law may not be enforced (or enforceable), and it’s likely to be changed, but as of this writing it’s still on the books.

Now, doesn’t a little tax-deductible philanthropy sound better than navigating that legal morass?

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