How to Break Up with Your Laptop (or Phone or Tablet)

August 2021

Image: Getty Images

The other week I bought a new laptop to replace one I’d used regularly since our company was formed almost eight years ago. With all the problems the portable device provided in recent years, I was struck by how difficult it was to move on to a modern version.

I used that old (by technology standards) MacBook Pro exclusively for the first three years of our company’s founding. It moved with me from dining room tables to home offices, from airplane trays to hotel desks. It kept me company when I couldn’t sleep and kept me in touch when I couldn’t travel. It held scores of content marketing created from scratch—brochures, email campaigns, whitepapers, case studies, ebooks and award-winning magazine articles.

I doubt I’m the only one with attachment issues when it comes to electronics, including cellphones and tablets. But that attachment can come at a cost if we aren’t careful. Even if a machine is in disuse, it still can be exploited if you leave it unprotected. Here are some recommendations for how to dispose of old laptops.

Back up files and transfer them to the new machine

First, as a best practice, you should always routinely back up data and disks. This is especially important when you transition to a new machine. I moved a majority of kept files to external drives and the cloud (both Apple and Carbonite) … just in case. I also, as a practice, periodically purged unnecessary files, so this job was easier than it might be for those who save everything.

Don’t immediately remove cybersecurity software

Make sure everything remains protected with strong cybersecurity software that’s scanned daily for malware while you sign out of all online accounts. As soon as a device connects with the internet, it’s vulnerable to attack. That’s why you shouldn’t cancel or transfer a license until you’ve taken the next steps in securely disposing of your laptop. You’ll be able to make the subscription changes from your new device.

Wipe and/or destroy the hard drive

It sounds complicated, but it’s actually relatively easy to reset/reformat your phone or laptop to its original settings—before you loaded all those apps and software. If you use a password manager, make sure it’s off your system too. Otherwise, you’ve just left a roadmap for someone to break in from their own machines.

Remove any other files that remain and, for good measure if your device is headed to a wasteland, pull out the motherboard and destroy it, or wrap the entire laptop in a sheet or large towel and give it a good smash with something heavy, like a sledgehammer. Goggles are a good idea too.

When ready, securely destroy and discard

Although there are programs for reselling or repurposing old phones, tablets and laptops, it raises the risks of exposure to malicious hackers down the road. And yet, if you churn through electronics, you’re also contributing to environmental waste that is becoming a big deal around the world.

You cannot place old phones and laptops in regular trash containers—nor should you want to. There are components, particularly lithium batteries, that are hazardous. That’s why you must destroy and then discard through ewaste programs. I live in a big city, so finding ewaste disposal sites is easy. It may not be where you are located, but they do exist even in remote places because landfills do not want to contend with such contamination and there are always entrepreneurs wishing to recycle e-components for profit.

For weeks, I continued using my old laptop as I weighed what to install. After all, my previous laptop’s performance degraded as soon as I added numerous videoconferencing apps to communicate with clients. But the transition’s complete. I need to part ways with ol’ unfaithful, send it on its way.

However, I’m not throwing it all away just yet, so I will continue to protect the data on it as I always have, even if the laptop is now buried in some closet. It will make a good backup in the months to come. Besides, me and my old laptop have been through a lot. I’m not prepared to just throw away everything we built together. But I am making sure it doesn’t get misused or mishandled while I establish a relationship with its successor.

Stay safe out there,

Anne