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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ICT and Environment – Waste Side Story, Skopje, Macedonia

I’ve just got back from two days in Skopje, where I attended and presented at the ICT and Environment – Waste Side Story conference. The conference was organised by the Balkan e-Waste Management Advocacy Network (BEWMAN). Computer Aid has been working alongside BEWMAN for the past 18 months to tackle the e-waste problem in the West Balkans, through improved policy and practice across the region. The network is funded by the European Union.

The conference was the final part of the two year funded project and it brought together experts in sustainable IT and e-waste from countries across the Balkans and Europe.

Lovely Autumn view of the Vardar River from outside the conference centre in Skopje

I found the conference very interesting, there were some very good and insightful presentations.
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Computer Aid launches Best Practice Guide to IT Decommissioning

Computer Aid has been working with independent research company Vanson Bourne to establish current IT decommissioning practices in the UK’s largest companies and we found that:

• 39 per cent of UK’s largest companies do not data wipe all their unwanted PCs

• One-third have decommissioned computers containing data which are unaccounted for

• 1 in 5 senior IT decision makers in the UK are “not confident” that zero per cent of their company’s unwanted IT goes to landfill

• Only 14 per cent follow best practice IT disposal and send their working IT for reuse

These statistics are shocking, particularly when one thinks of the scale of this problem. Each of the 100 companies surveyed are among the largest in the UK with half of the respondents employed in organisations with over 1,000 staff and the other half with over 3,000. Moreover, each company decommissions just under 550 PCs each per year.

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Computer Aid launches an advocacy guide on e-waste

Computer Aid recently launched a guide on how to conduct e-waste advocacy at the UN’s Internet Governance Forum in Nairobi, Kenya. The guide is intended for NGOs and civil society groups anywhere in the world to help them campaign for improvement to current systems in their countries and put an end to the harmful social and environmental impacts of electronics.

The problem

The statistics are scary, the United Nations Environment Programme estimates that globally we generate around 50 million tonnes of e-waste per year and, with current trends in electronics design and manufacture driving rapid replacement cycles, this only seems like it will continue to get worse.

Why is Computer Aid concerned?

Of particular concern to Computer Aid is the impact that e-waste has on communities and the environment in developing countries, where we predominantly work. Computer Aid exists to reduce poverty through practical ICT solutions and we work in some of the poorest and most marginalised communities in the world, providing ICT for use in educations, health and agriculture. However, as well as providing essential IT to these communities, we want there to be safe and environmentally friendly facilities for them to get their electronic waste recycled, once it has reached its end of life.
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IT’s not a pretty picture: Computer Aid reveals new research on IT disposal in the UK

Computer Aid has today launched the first of its two part series of research into how large UK companies dispose of their IT. The research was made possible through the generous support of Vanson Bourne who donated their time and resources to help us better understand the trends in PC disposal and also raise awareness of the issues around current disposal practices.

Vanson Bourne’s team of researchers surveyed 100 senior IT decision makers in companies with over 1,000 employees across the UK and the results were very concerning. The full overview can be found here but key findings include:

  • 1 in 5 senior IT decision makers in the UK are “not confident” that zero per cent of their company’s unwanted IT goes to landfill
  • Only 14 % follow best practice IT disposal and send their working IT for reuse
  • But 83% of those who don’t reuse would like to do so if possible
  • 542 PCs disposed of per large company per year

Dumping e-waste in landfill is illegal as well as incredibly damaging for human health and the environment, so it’s very worrying that 20 per cent of our largest companies cannot be sure their own PCs don’t get sent to landfill. You can see the impact of the illegal trade of electronic waste in the Environment Investigation Agencies special report titled System Failure, the UK’s harmful trade in electronic Waste.
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