I recently read “Secondhand: Travels in the New Global Garage Sale” by Adam Minter (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2019). Minter is a business journalist whose career has focused on covering the global recycling and reuse industry. His new book explores what happens to our clothing and household goods after we donate them. A particularly interesting chapter at the end of the book addresses the afterlife of used computers.
According to Minter, the U.S. market for extracting and recycling valuable metals and plastics from used computers has grown. But there’s also a thriving reuse/recycling market in West Africa, where secondhand goods are far more common than new ones.
There’s been a lot of negative publicity about dumping of American “e-waste” on less-developed countries. However, Minter points out that West African entrepreneurs want to import quality used electronics from the U.S.
In many cases, the monitors, keyboards, desktops and laptops that we consider as e-waste can be repaired, often by “cannibalizing” parts from other used machines. Entrepreneurs then resell the refurbished products to students, schools, hospitals and other customers.
Minter cites a 2011 e-waste study by a consortium of research organizations including the United Nations Environment Programme that found that, of electronics arriving in Tema (the largest port in Ghana):
I couldn’t help thinking about the technology graveyards I’ve seen in basements, attics and home offices. People are rightly concerned about the sensitive data on their old computers and the risk of identity theft. This leads to stashing of old computers rather than donating after permanently “wiping” them with a software program. And in some cases it’s probably just inertia that leads people to simply put old technology on a shelf and forget about it.
Minter’s book gave me an appreciation for the global secondhand electronics economy, in which entrepreneurs repair used technology, sell it to people who prefer quality refurbished goods to cheap new ones, mine it for parts when it’s no longer repairable, and finally salvage it by extracting recyclable materials.
If you’re ready to finally get rid of the electronic clutter in your office or storage space and let it find new life elsewhere, here are two resources on “wiping” old computers before donating: