The afterlife of many cast-off computers seems to be lived out in dusty closets, attics and basements. But that doesn't have to be so; you can send your old PC, or at least its constituent components, off to a better place with a little research.
What kind of place depends largely on the computer's age.
If it's less than five years or so old, give it to an organization that can place the PC in a deserving home. Older than that? Send the machine to a recycling program that can strip it down to its parts for reuse or safe disposal.
If your computer is spry enough to have a chance for a second life, local user groups may be your best way to find out what organizations can put the retired machine to use.
The Capital PC User Group, for example, accepts donations of old equipment at its downtown Rockville office (101 Fleet St.) from 2 to 6 p.m. Mondays and from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesdays
Gerald Rosenkrantz, the "Project Reboot" program's coordinator, warned that any computers older than a 120-megahertz Pentium will probably get scrapped; more information is available at the group's Web site (www.cpcug.net/reboot.asp).
Similarly, Washington Apple Pi takes donated, Mac-compatible hardware brought to its offices (12022 Parklawn Dr., Rockville) between 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays; see www.wap.org/about/donations.html for details.
Although most Goodwill outlets and a growing number of Salvation Army locations don't accept donated PCs, Washington area residents are in luck: The Salvation Army here (www.salvationarmydcmetro.org) does, and the local Goodwill operation (www.dcgoodwill.org) accepts functioning machines with Pentium or newer processors.
But representatives from both organizations said they often end up having to pay to dispose of old computers they can't sell or put to use. So if your computer is past that half-decade mark, you should consider taking or sending it to a recycler to avoid the bad karma of sticking the Salvation Army with your disposal tab.
One recycling option comes via the annual or biannual events that some local environmental offices hold. Arlington County, for example, throws an "Environmental Extravaganza" every spring and fall, at which the county's Department of Environmental Services (www.co.arlington.va.us/des) will accept computers free and monitors for a fee of $5 to $25, depending on the screen size.
But it's becoming easier to get the folks who sold you that computer to recycle it themselves. Dell, Gateway and Hewlett-Packard have recycling programs; Gateway (www.gateway.tradeups.com) will even throw in a rebate good toward your next Gateway purchase.
In each case, a delivery service will come and take your old junkers off your hands; all you have to do is box them up and (usually) pay a small disposal fee.
HP (warp1.external.hp.com/recycle), for example, charges $13 to $34 per item; a PC with a monitor costs $46 to have carted off. Dell (www.dell.com/recycling) charges $7.50 each for printers, monitors and PCs; the company will recycle your old printer free if you buy a new one from Dell.
Dell also lets users donate an old PC to the National Cristina Foundation, a nonprofit that provides disabled and poor children with computers.
Whether you ship your old, lightning-fast 400-MHz machine to a new home or a computing boneyard, you should also make sure you don't donate any of your old data with the machine. Simply deleting your files isn't enough; you'll need to use special software to overwrite them.
For example, try Wizard Industries' free Sure Delete utility for Windows (www.wizard-industries.com). Microsoft, for its part, suggests the "Wipe Info" tool in Norton Utilities, a program available for both Windows and Mac users.
Other disk-cleaning options can be found on the Shareware.com Web site, and the system CD that came with the old machine can also be used to reformat the hard drive for basic data destruction. Or just ask the user group that's taking your old machine for advice.