/ Sustainability

What do you do with your old tech?

mobile phones

Congratulations, you’ve just upgraded to a new mobile phone! But what do you do with your old one? Does it collect dust or get a second life?

There have been many great archaeological finds throughout history; Sutton Hoo, the Tomb of Tutenkamen and, for me, a small plastic box containing every mobile phone I’ve ever owned.

They were all there – the Moto Razr Z3, the Blackberry Curve, even the Motorola Pro+, still running strong with Android 2.1.

Despite the nostalgia, this is no good thing. A quick inventory of all the disused tech in my house includes:

  • One printer
  • One VCR
  • Two desktops
  • Two scanners
  • Three old laptops
  • Five monitors
  • Six digital cameras

This doesn’t include the new discovery, nor the bags of cables, memory cards, and other peripherals that go with it.

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Functionally obsolete

It’s hard for me to get rid of these digital relics. I am very reluctant to contribute to my portion of the average 24kgs of electronic waste that each of us in the UK produces every year.

Most of these items still work, maybe still as new with a new battery or spare part, and I find it difficult to throw out something that may prove useful, maybe.

There’s also an emotional pull on keeping these items. There was once a time when the phone in this box was essential to my daily life.

If I get rid of this phone, will I also be getting rid of old contacts, photographs, or other personal data that I forgot to wipe?

And yet, I don’t feel the draw to bring them back into life, at least not in the same way.

The software isn’t robust enough for most of the apps I now use, and being so far out of their supported life from the manufacturer means the chance of a software update or new security patch are practically zero.

Reusing and reducing

Buying as future-proof as possible is a goal going forward, and I’m keen to see options for repair and maintenance of what we buy move from being an option to being the default.

It was encouraging to see new rules announced by the EU just last week.

I’ve now decided to challenge myself to give these devices a second life.

Pulling together some of the parts of the old computers and a new monitor, plus finding a Linux distribution called Lakka, I now have a video game console that handles everything from the Spectrum ZX to Playstation 2.

And what better time to do it – did you know that this Saturday 19 October is International Repair Day? Local repair workshops also take place across the country regularly.

What happens to your old electronics once you’ve upgraded? Do you repurpose them in some way?

What tips can you offer others who may not want to contribute to an ever-growing heap of discarded tech?


I have to confess I am completely hopeless at getting rid of old tech, even stuff that’s broken. I finally last week got rid of a broken modem and smart battery charger. That still leaves stuff that works to some extent but I will probably never use : 2 PCs from 2001, iMac from 2005, USB floppy drive, USB ZIP drive, another modem, Sony minidisc recorder virtually unused because it was so complicated to operate, Minolta digital camera from 2003, boxes of old floppies, ZIP disks, CD/RWs, minidiscs, boxes of mains cables, telephone cables, ancient computer leads (will I ever connect a SCSI device to anything again?). I guess I think some of it might come in useful one day, but it probably never will.

I hold on to old tech in case it comes in useful. Old computers can be very useful to open files created in obsolete software. I regularly use a ten year old iMac to run old Adobe software that won’t run on a modern operating system.

Colin’s comment about SCSI devices made me smile. Yesterday I earmarked a SCSI Zip drive and DVD-RAM drive for disposal, along with a bundle of leads.

I think I have all the mobile phones I have ever owned – an old Siemens one that became outdated, two old Nokias that died and one that is kept in the car for emergency use. My trusty iPhone is five and a half years old and still going strong.

Some years ago I took some of my late parents’ electrical goods to a secondhand shop and learned that they were short of power leads, which helped me get rid of a good collection.

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Most of my old tech gets binned or recycled once its broken. Anything that still works gets to stick around, even if only used infrequently.

My main desktop PC was bought new in 2008 and has been progressively upgraded since then. Its first upgrade was to Windows XP as a replacement for Windows Vista; these days it can still boot XP but usually runs Linux, with XP available as an app via VirtualBox. When I need more number crunching horsepower, the two similar machines that I recently acquired secondhand for £40 and £20 are brought into use as well. Those newer machines came with Windows 7 licences that have been now been upgraded to W10 (using the ongoing Microsoft freebie), but I usually only run Linux on them.

Most of my older and oldest laptops have been given away, either for recycling or for re-use by friends and family. That leaves a fair few available, for infrequent software projects.

Just the other day I gave a good camera to the charity I used to work for. They will use it on field trips, as I understand, better than doing nothing in a cupboard. I’m keeping an older smart phone as a spare in case my current on conks out, and all the other ones have gone to charity. My old printer went into the small electrical items recycling skip, into which I will also shortly chuck sundry obsolete leads.

I’m rather like Derek; I have several functioning but almost never used printers, for example.

Do a hard reboot, take out the SD card and take it down to CEX. Job done.

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Duncan, CeX has shops nationwide and, according to the wiki, overseas as well. I quite often buy s/h computer bits and pieces there, especially if I need them more conveniently than from eBay or other on-line vendors.

From a buyers’ perspective, I think they are quite pricey for s/h PC’s and phones, but they do often have a wide range of stuff on offer.

I’ll also buy s/h DVD’s from CeX. Here they can be very competitive on price and actually cheaper than some charity shops.

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Derek Garner says:
15 October 2019

Our Bosch washing machine is 19 years old. A new set of motor brushes, fitted by me, at eight years old and again at 17 years, have been our total expenditure. Being a retired spark helps me get the longest life from all our stuff.

A 19 year old washing machine is an odd example of ‘tech’ since it is so primitive that it cannot even order more detergent. Here’s a recent Conversation about efforts to make it easier for those of us who want it to be easier to do our own repairs: https://conversation.which.co.uk/technology/right-to-repair-appliance-eu-rules/

With the current state of the world, we need to make our tech last as long as possible. It is scandalous to force a premature end to perfectly good products.

Nearly a third of the world still uses Windows 7. In January this year it was reported there was an actual increase in people using Windows 7.

Windows 7 works. Software we love works, everything we want to do works, our computers do everything we want them to do, so why are we being forced to replace it?

Windows 10 is not an update to something new and exciting, it is a forced change that many Windows 7 users just do not want. It is not that we are afraid of change, we just don’t like Windows 10. Also, there will be many users who just can’t afford to upgrade. They may have old hardware that won’t work with Windows 10 so hardware is being forcibly scrapped.

We hear plenty about plastic waste but very little about electronic E-waste.

There are mountains of the stuff, dangerous eyesores, much of it in poorer parts of the world. It may be illegal to export e-waste from Europe, but exporting for re-use is not and it is likely nobody will check it still works.

These photos show the inconvenient truth about our unwanted tech.

Children risk their lives burning plastic off cables to sell the copper for a pittance to fund their education in Ghana. Our dumped electronics can contain toxic materials such as lead, zinc, nickel, barium and chromium that is seriously damaging to health of both humans and animals, polluting the atmosphere, poisoning the ground, infiltrating rivers, and why? So we can have a nice new one or so the likes of Microsoft can make another £billion profit?

Microsoft’s website is full of self-praise for sustainability. It says Our environmental policies and practices aim to protect, conserve, and sustain natural resources along with our customers and the communities where we live and operate. MS claims their operations are carbon neutral but how can this be true when they are forcing the premature death of up to hundreds of millions of computers? Making Windows 7 software obsolete has enormous consequences on the hardware it is run on and MS needs to take responsibility for that and the way it is disposed of.

In April of this year, the New York Times reported Microsoft profits rose 19% to $8.8billion for the quarter. This was despite supporting Windows 7, so there is no financial reason to drop a much-loved operating system.

I already support a Windows 10 computer so I do know what it is like, and money to upgrade is not an obstacle. I and millions of others just don’t want Windows 10. If I can no longer use Windows 7, I will not be going to Windows 10 so you will likely lose many users.

Why can’t Microsoft accept they have 2 lots of users and support both groups?

I have just recently tested the feasibility of installing Windows 10 on an MSI U180 (an Intel Atom based netbook with only 1Gb ram). I was pleased to discover that the upgrade worked and that Microsoft accepted the Windows 7 Starter licence key as valid for a free upgrade to W10.

Hence, I think most PC’s capable of running W7 can be upgraded to W10.

That said, it is a shame that users cannot keep W7 and then pay for software updates and security patches. To be fair to Microsoft, Apple and Google are just as bad, if not worse at supporting older versions of their OSes.

One or two of my clients (and related organisations) run their main computers using RedHat Linux 6. This dates from the same era as Windows Vista, but has always been supported on the basis of an annual fee per computer. If Microsoft had used that basis with Windows, then they might have been happier about providing long term support to older versions of their OS.

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It’s Alfa who is the artistic one, Duncan. I have met Tux but we were not properly introduced.

I somewhat doubt that Tux should ever be used to promote any closed source proprietary OS.

Kath says:
20 October 2019

But what can you do about any private and delicate information on these old bits and pieces. I am also safety conscious I don’t want to give away old phones with personal data. what can I do?

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It’s the same with HDDs, too; I lost one of our media server drives the other week, and dismantled the drive, accessed the data platters and drilled holes through them, before using tools to bend them into right angles.

Never, ever throw a dead HDD into a bin until you’ve comprehensively destroyed the platters.

The serious risk is from identity theft. I am not worried about the police or government agencies or the secret service going through my stuff other than it would be a complete waste of their time. I do destroy the HDD of obsolete or dead equipment. All my e-mails are in the Cloud, and most of the files on my computer are also, which has been very useful when a PC packs up. Other than that it’s all rubbish but could be useful rubbish to a criminal I suppose, but not much use when I am also in the Cloud. Everything I have ever done on-line also exists on one or more computers elsewhere, of course.