Sustainable computing – what you can do

There are lots of ways you can do your part to make computers sustainable.Some are more ambitious than others, but every little bit helps.

The basic idea is to get the most use out of computers as possible, before getting them recycled. Here are some suggestions:

Get a used computer

Keep using your computer as long as you can

  • Prevent over-heating (the main cause of computer failures)
    • Make sure air vents on bottom and side of laptops are uncovered (for example, don’t use laptops  on top of fabrics which block the vents).
    • Periodically clean dust from the inside of computer, especially the fan and vents.
    • Take periodic breaks to let the computer cool if running compute- or  graphics-intensive programs.
  • Other causes of damage are due to dropping the computer, jamming connectors in roughly, and spilling liquids. (If you do spill liquids, turn off power immediately and give the device plenty of time to dry.)
  • Get better performance
    • Close  unneeded tabs and remove unused extensions in browser.
    • Install ad-block software on your browser.
    • Close unused programs.
  • Clean  up software:
    • Remove crud from a slow version of Windows, e.g. by reinstalling.
    • Install Linux to replace a slow or obsolete version of Windows, such as XP.
  • Repair problems. (See Fixing computers.)
    • Many problems are due to software (see previous point)
    • Hardware problems can be fixed and broken parts can be replaced. It may or may not be worth it. Many parts are available cheaply, for example via eBay.
  • Upgrade hardware (if desired)
    • Replace hard drive with a faster drive (for example SSD).
    • Add more memory if you need it.
    • Replace CPU or motherboard for a major upgrade.


Sue Kayton of the Menlo-Atherton PTA computer refurbishing program has written a great guide that goes into more detail: “Taking care of your Windows computer“.

Apple users, don’t miss the article by David Herron of TPA: Save money and the planet, repair/upgrade your old MacBook Pro rather than tossing it to buy a new one“.


  • Use an old laptop as a desktop, e.g. after battery has died. For comfort, use a lapstop stand and perhaps a big monitor.
  • Use an old computer as a back-up system – in case you’re in the middle of a project and your main computer breaks down.
  • Use an old computer for a special purpose, e.g. as a file server, web server, video or audio server.
  • Re-use parts (RAM, hard drives, power supplies, cards, CD/DVD drives).

Give away or sell

  • Give to a family member or friend.
  • Donate to an organization to refurbish, part out, or responsibly recycle.
  • Sell as a working unit or “for parts or repair” (eBay, Craigslist, Nextdoor).
  • Make sure drives are cleaned of data before giving away (deleting files is not enough). See Advice from Best Buy.


  • Recycling should be a last resort, since it requires energy and recycled materials are less useful than functioning units. It is estimated that re-using a computer is about 25 times as envrionmentally benefical as recycling it at 3-5 years of age. (Lynch, Computers for Classrooms).
  • Look for responsible recyclers. Bad recyclers ship electronics to foreign countries for disposal in unsafe and polluting processes, such as burning circuit boards to get metals.
  • Electronic gear should never be sent to the landfill, since it has toxic chemicals.

Buying and selling computers (online)

  • Craigslist. Buy and sell computers and other gear locally. You typically meet the seller in a public location and pay in cash.
  • Nextdoor. A private social network active in our area. It’s not hard to get an invitation to join and get connected to local people. Occasionally electronic gear shows up on the “Free” and “Classified” notices.
  • eBay.  Buy and sell computers and other gear nationally. Unsurpassed for finding obscure parts.You can buy used computers in lots of 2 to 100+.
  • Freecycle. Giving and getting free stuff. I haven’t seen much electronic gear on offer.

Buying used computers (bricks and mortar)

  • Stanford Surplus, Stanford campus.  Computers, peripherals, and parts from Stanford University. Ask at the desk for hard drives. Office furniture, tools and much. miscellaneous is also for sale.  (Stanford News article,  Patch article). Open Wednesday and Thursday.
  • Weird Stuff,  Sunnyvale. A warehouse full of odd and perhaps still useful electronics. See the Tour, for a taste of this iconic store.
  • HSC Electronic Supply (aka Halted), Santa Clara. Recommended by Eitan and the New York Times: “one of the last of a dying breed — a rough-around-the-edges electronics wonderland.”
  • Electronics Flea Market, DeAnza College. Swap meet for radio and electronics. Second Sunday of each month.
  • Computers for Everyone, Menlo Park. Refurbishes computers and other gear. Accepts donated computers.
  • Western Pacific Pulp and Paper, Newark. A huge recycling facility which often has laptops for sale.

Computer refurbishers

Electronics recyclers