Refurbished IT – Waste or Product? Obstacles to the Digital Divide

How IT waste is legally defined or simply understood will increasingly cause conflicts. UK regional differences, lack of global consistency on e-waste laws and illegal practices all compromise the perceived and actual value of old IT. Yet computer reuse can be 20 times more energy efficient than recycling – so how can this be called waste?

At this year’s ICT for Sustainability Conference in London we hosted a roundtable discussion centering on this issue, encouraging a discussion from all sides. Chairing the day’s discussion was Phil Conran of 360 Environmental.

Upgrading to replace ICT equipment with the latest technology is ever-present in developed countries, resulting in Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) becoming one of the largest growing waste streams. The demand for equipment to address the growing digital divide is ongoing as well, but with governmental regulations in Europe imposing requirements to recycle items deemed as ‘waste’ rather than refurbish and reuse them, are we missing an opportunity to extend the life of good equipment, mitigate a growing waste problem, and make positive change in communities with limited access to ICT?

In the EU, the most recent draft of the WEEE Directive, a regulation encompassing and setting targets in dealing with ‘waste’, sets out lofty targets for recycling of WEEE (which varies between roughly 8% – 11% by area), but does not yet set out specific targets for how much of this disposed equipment should be reused. There is demand for equipment elsewhere, and we have the facilities to make this happen, so what concerns or drawbacks might there be in going down the route of reuse rather than recycling?

In discussions of IT reuse, the topic of data security is unavoidable. Horror stories of sensitive data being recovered from ‘refurbished’ equipment pop up again and again, reinforcing the idea with IT Managers that reuse is not a road that they should be going down. Thankfully, regulatory organisations such as the CESG in the UK endorse full-disk erasure software which ensures with absolute certainty that no data survives the wiping process, leaving you with a completely blank slate (for example, here at Computer Aid we use Kroll OnTrack Eraser to wipe all donated equipment). Addressing these concerns, and educating on best practice in ICT disposals, is vital to encouraging the concept of reuse in large organisations who often have extremely conservative outlooks on the decommissioning of their hardware.

As the discussion continued, it was great to also have input from the manufacturers as well. Maintaining a brand perception as reliable and cutting edge is vital, but with the growing demand for ‘white box’, unbranded PCs in developing countries, could this not also be seen as an opportunity for corporates to develop brand awareness in a new market through the provision of affordable, professionally refurbished equipment?

The discussion then turned to the topic of illegal e-waste exportation, the lack of regulatory control in many developing countries, and the potential for investment from ‘the West’ to extract the often valuable components of dumped WEEE.

How can we encourage environmental advocacy and policy change at the government level in developing countries, and what is our role in this process? These a difficult questions for anyone to answer. Working to bridge the digital divide is more than providing hardware, it’s also about sharing knowledge, experience and best practice. A great example is the WEEE Centre in Nairobi, Kenya set up in collaboration between Computers for Schools Kenya, Digital Pipeline Africa, World Loop and Computer Aid. The centre provides a reliable disposal site, a model of best practice and, vitally, training opportunities in Kenya to spread awareness and expertise. In the coming years, the collective aim is to open further facilities and expand the capacity for e-waste treatment across the continent.

These were just a few examples of the many interesting questions and comments brought to light during the roundtable, and there’s sure to be many more in years to come as the growth in affordability and access to ICT continues.

To get involved in the discussion with any comments, follow the hashtag #WasteOrNot, or have a read of our Special Report Series (especially relevent is the 4th in the series, ‘Ending All E-Waste’).

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