6 Things I’ve Learned Recycling Laptops for Those in Need

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The typical appearance of my dining room table.

When not parenting, blogging, working, or watching way too much television, I also have this thing I work on called The Laptop Project. Essentially, I take broken laptops and fix them up (or part them out to fix other laptops) and give them to people in need. I’ve been doing this for a few years now, but have really been doing a brisk “trade” this year; with help from friends, we’ve given out 63 machines (laptops and tablets). You learn some interesting things about people, doing this.

6. Some People Hoard Tech.
I started doing this back in my freelance tech support days. Time and again, I’d come across clients who had perfectly good “old” laptops sitting on a shelf. Sometimes they’d be broken in some small way and I’d easily be able to fix it for someone else, but the amazing thing is that they still would hold on to it. Sometimes for years. This leads to the biggest issue I have – I have a date cutoff of 2007. I try to not take any machines older than that. This does not prevent people trying to use me as a garbage dump; we’ve had offers for machines as old as 1997.

Why do you even still HAVE this! Image: oldcomputers.net
Why do you even still HAVE this!
Image: oldcomputers.net

So on the one hand, holding on to old tech does help people like me. On the other, let’s not go nuts. But when you do throw it out, keep in mind the next item on our list.

5. Other People Are Careless With Their Personal Data.
As interesting as the people in #7 are, this one is an important one for the parents in the room. Does your kid’s computer have a password? Great. Guess what? It’s useless.

Let’s ignore the fact that I can almost certainly reset your existing Windows password with one of the tools on Hiren. Disregard that I can do the same to a Mac with the original install CD or recovery partition. All I have to do is pop your hard disk out and put it in an enclosure. Then, 99% of the time, all your data is right there.

Yes. All of it. Image: Guess where?
Yes. All of it.
Image: Guess where?

And that’s assuming you even bother with a password. It’s one thing if it’s a machine someone donates to me to wipe and reuse – I’m happy to perform this. But a large part of this job is, to be honest, keeping an eye out for laptops sitting in the trash and that sort of thing. We’re not talking machines that are broken, btw. These were all machines that has minor issues (in one case, a screw had to be replaced) and could have been erased. Yet the owners left all their personal data on it. I knew where they lived, worked, and their schedule for the next month. One person even left his email as auto-login!

Please, if you throw out a computer, learn how to factory reset at the very least. Windows 8 and 10 make this easy (7 was hit or miss) and Mac OS has bundled a Recovery tool since version 10.7. Heck, the Mac one even lets you do a Secure Erase.

Also? Encrypt your hard drive.

4. Obey The Law, No Matter How Hard People Ask.
The goal of the project is to help people, but you need to walk a fine line between doing what you can and doing what others want you to. For example, the most common request I get is for commercial software, ala MS Office or Photoshop. While a few people have gotten upset when I have explained that I can’t give that out, most understand. It helps that I’ll gladly install an alternative.

3. Everything Fits Everything.
Scenario: Someone donates a Dell Inspiron 6000 that boots to a black screen. This is actually a pretty known issue, to the point it caused a class action lawsuit that impacted Dell, HP, Lenovo, and Apple. Regardless, after harvesting the battery, hard disk, RAM, and media drive, the rest is junk,right? Nope.

You know what makes taking one of those worth it? The LCD panel. Just like all those companies used the same place to make their graphics chip, they all tend to use LG and Samsung for screens. So that Dell LCD will fit into a ton of other laptops. Since cracked screens are about the most common issue I run into, that means a machine like that is a goldmine. I actually have three boxes of screens at the ready.

This machine had a cracked screen. I had the exact screen in a box. New laptop for someone in need.
This machine had a cracked screen. I had the exact screen in a box. New laptop for someone in need.

Oh, and don’t forget the keyboard. That Dell keyboard fits about twenty other Dell models.

Y’know, maybe I shouldn’t be so quick to mock hoarders…

2. It’s Fun For The Whole Family.
One of the great things about this project, personally, is that it’s something you can do with your kids. My daughter will usually help me set up testing machines. It’s also given her an awareness that others may not be as lucky as she is.

My wife has dropped machines off for people and even my five year-old has gotten in on the action a little by “helping” me with simple tasks. He knew the difference between a Phillips, Hex, and flathead at four. Heck, my siblings and folks have gotten in on the action too, sourcing donated hardware for me from their circles.

1. Warm Fuzzy Feelings Are a Thing.
I confess to being something of a cynic. I think people are selfish and tend to be mean. Doing this though, reminds me that they’re not. I’ve had multiple people mail me tablets for special needs children. So not only are they giving free tablets, but at their own cost of shipping and their own time. There’s one guy I met who sets up old laptops for a physical rehab center for children (great place for all my “only works plugged in” machines). During the recent Memorial Day flooding in Houston, TX, a member of that community made a donation to pay for shipping for laptops to families that lost everything. I’ve had even had people fly laptops to other countries, even. It’s amazing to see everyone working to help.

The Laptop Project has turned out to fill a real need in my area. It’s not an idea I own. Consider starting something similar and helping those in need around you.

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Mordechai is a geek with a teenage geek daughter and geek-in-training pre-schooler. Mordechai has an obsessive interest in comics (especially older ones) as well as tech. He also watches way, way too much television.