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?

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Computer Aid’s new Chief Executive visits some of the projects now benefiting from donations of ICT equipment in Nairobi, Kenya

This week, Computer Aid International’s new Chief Executive, Tom Davis visits Nairobi to meet with our Africa Programmes team and some of Computer Aid’s partners

Mukuru Kwa Njena in Embakasi is one of Nairobi’s slums, and contains within it Our Lady of Nazareth Primary School, where Computer Aid International supplies its refurbished computers through its partners Computers for Schools Kenya (CFSK). When we went to the computer lab, about 50 children were engrossed in a PowerPoint exercise – we tiptoed in and walked around the aisles looking at the presentations that they were building.

We were on a visit with CFSK to one of the schools to which they provide computers as part of their programmes delivering information and communications technology (ICT) to educational institutions in Kenya without a lot of either. Although school was out this week, a class of 8th form students was studying for their exams, and CFSK arranged this as part of my induction as the new Chief Executive of Computer Aid, this week visiting the Kenyan part of the Computer Aid team. We made our way here in a 4X4, which just about managed to negotiate deeply rutted dirt paths, dodge crowds of pedestrians, and deftly navigate carts full of chopped wood, roadside displays of bags of charcoal and neatly stacked chevrons of toilet paper. Sometimes this was only possible by slowing to a halt, backing up, driving forward, backing up again, twisting the vehicle like a rubber band around all the obstacles, meanwhile bouncing up and down deep crevices in the earth that passed for a road. Our expert driver navigated perfectly, except for taking the wrong left and leading us to a market and a seeming dead end. Then we turned around, and we were lucky to meet someone he knew who put us on the right path, and we jounced and jerked and juddered towards the school. Driving down a side road off the main path, we came to some gates, and once we drove through, left the external chaos behind. The compound we found was neatly arranged in rows of low one storey buildings and we were escorted to the middle of a row of buildings and into the computer lab. While we walked around, I stopped to speak to Frances (not her real name).

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