Broken electronics are terrible, not only because of the loss of materials, but also because they are very difficult to reuse or repair when something has primarily failed. We̵7;m not lying: Sometimes your options for securely disposing of hardware and protecting your personal data are limited. But we’ve created a rough guide on what to do next when your gadget breaks.
Assuming you have excluded a repair from a manufacturer or an independent electronics store, you must focus on three steps: remove dangerous components from the device, delete your personal information, and either repair the device or discard it for recycling.
So you’ve ragged your stuff. There are many different ways that can happen, but the primary thing to keep in mind is, can it really hurt you? The odds of being severely damaged by modern electronics are low, but these increase greatly if there has been severe shock damage or broken screen.
If the glass on your screen is broken, treat it just like any other broken glass: First place the gadget carefully and sweep or vacuum the surrounding floor to get some glass screens. (Make sure you have closed shoes!) One that is ready, place the unit in a bag or drawer so that no more shards can come loose.
Note that this is only necessary if the glass itself is broken: if your device has a plastic screen or if the screen has broken without breaking the glass, there is no real danger.
The other very dangerous component in modern electronics is the battery. Lithium-ion batteries and other constructions contain dangerous chemicals that can burn the skin and damage the eyes and possibly start fires if the battery is damaged. If your device starts to emit smoke, make loud noises or swell up, get away immediately. If you have time, move it outwards or on a non-flammable surface. Try not to breathe if the battery smokes or pops – it emits dangerous gases.
If the battery is active in a fire and it can not be moved safely, treat it like a regular fire: Hitting it with a regular fire extinguisher works best, but using water is okay in a pinch. Do not try to suffocate the fire; this does not work, as the battery itself is its combustible fuel. If you can not put out the fire immediately or if it spreads, call the emergency services.
When a working battery is safe, remove it from the device if possible. If the gadget is intact, you can remove the battery acid from plastic and electrical sockets by using a toothbrush or Q-tip soaked in lemon juice or vinegar. Use hand and eye protection when cleaning.
Some other types of electronics can be dangerous if damaged, such as the large capacitors in a power supply or heating elements in appliances. But for the most part, these cannot be opened externally or marked with adequate safety warnings. It is more common to get a minor injury from a broken gadget as a cut from a metal case. Use common sense when handling them, keep them away from children and pets, and you will have a good time.
Clear personal information
The second part of securing a device that you are going to throw away is about data. If possible, your goal should be to do a factory reset to delete some of your own information from the device. Sometimes it’s easy: If your desktop computer no longer works, you can just open it and remove the hard drive. You can then connect it to another computer and wipe the device.
Other times it’s not that simple. For example, on a modern ultra-thin laptop, the storage may be soldered to the motherboard and thus impossible to remove without special tools. Of course, if your phone is broken so you can not even turn it on, you will not be able to reset it.
We have to be pretty general here. Provided you can still turn on and use the device, a quick web search should show you how to either clear your personal data or clear the device completely. (May we suggest our sister site, How-To Geek?) Assuming you can not use the gadget normally, here are some resources for the most common devices:
- iPhones and iPads: Connect your gadget to a computer and perform the “reset function”. You can do this with Finder on the latest versions of MacOS or from iTunes on older Macs or Windows computers. You may need to perform some basic key combinations.
- Android phones and tablets: If your Android phone or tablet screen is broken, you can still start it in recovery mode and wipe your personal data with a combination of the power and volume buttons. If the phone does not start up at all, you can connect it to a computer with a USB cable and use the ADB software and the “reset – wipe_data” command. You need ADB installed on your computer and the correct driver installed. The exact methods may vary by device.
- Windows computers: Assuming you can’t physically remove the hard drive or SSD and you can’t boot into Windows to manually delete your data, you have a few more options. You can use another computer to download the installation media for Windows 10 to a USB device and then install Windows from the BIOS or UEFI system, just like a regular installation. Format the storage device during this process. If you need to delete the original data first, find a recovery environment or the faceplate.
- Macs: If your computer can start, you can use “Command + R” while it starts to open the recovery mode. Click “Disk Utility”, then select the storage device and click “Delete”. You will need to reinstall a copy of MacOS from external media in order to use it again.
- Flash drives and other external devices: Connect the device to a computer and format the data. If you cannot see the device in the operating system, you may need to partition it first with Windows Disk Management Utility or MacOS Disk Utility. This deletes data anyway, but you can format the device again to be safe.
For other gadgets, search for your specific device. For less popular devices and unusual problems (especially if not turned on), you may need to dig through user groups or support forums.
Repairing your own gadgets can be a daunting task, but it is not impossible. Computers range from simple (especially desktops) to difficult, depending on which part you want to replace. Phones and tablets are much more difficult because they are designed to be difficult to open, and you have to track hard to find spare parts.
If you are intimidated by any of this, I recommend that you take your item to a workshop. These small shops have become much more popular with the rise of smartphones, and they usually keep broken parts (such as phone screens or batteries) on hand for a quick fix. If your gadget is less common, they can usually order the relevant part, or you can order it yourself and bring it with you.
Alternatively, you can always ask the device manufacturer for repair. This will be more expensive and time consuming, especially if there is no warranty. It usually requires you to submit an item and wait for it to be returned.
If you want to repair it yourself, the best way to ensure success is to be as informed as possible. iFixit is the web’s best resource for repairing personal electronics, with lots of guides for the most common devices. You can also search YouTube to try to find someone who has done exactly the repair you are looking for. Searching for “demolition” is a good start if you just need a general guide on opening and partial placement.
Remember, trying to repair a broken gadget is always a game. A repair may be impossible or you may cause more damage in the attempt. It may be best to assume that the device is lost before you begin, and if you can get it working again, it’s a happy outcome.
Due to the dangerous material in most gadgets, especially the batteries, it is usually a bad idea to simply throw them away. Once you have gone through the steps above, recycling may be the best option.
In the United States, most cities have multiple recycling centers that receive electronics and appliances for free, but you may have to pay to have larger items picked up from your home. You can also search for “appliance removal services” – these services take large items such as TVs and refrigerators, and either repair and sell them or scrap the components for recycling. Usually they pick up larger items for free!
There may be an even simpler option: your local electronics store. Stores like Best Buy offer a free recycling program for many devices, even large appliances. Again, they will try to repair if possible and take them to an electronics recycler if not.