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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Basel Convention Secretariat Publish Report Assessing state of e-waste in Africa

The secretariat of the Basel Convention last week published a report looking into the current state of Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) in Africa.  The report is titled ‘Where are WEee in Africa’.

The report highlights the importance of developing safe recycling capacity and recovery infrastructure in Africa.  As is well known, the impact of inappropriately-treated WEEE can be catastrophic for the health and the environment in communities that do not have adequate recycling facilities in place. Computer Aid fully supports such developments, as the threat of e-waste cannot be ignored.

The report also highlights the very real social and economic value of providing high quality refurbished and tested EEE to African countries.  Computer Aid exists to reduce poverty through practical ICT solutions, which is largely done through the provision of computers and laptops for use in education, agriculture and health across Africa and Latin America. There is a massive need for the use of ICT in many communities across the developing world. There is also the need for safe waste management facilities to be in place to deal with the ICT equipment once it reaches its end-of-life.

There’s still a lot of work to do

Whilst a number of African states are making progress in adopting WEEE legislation and seeking to boost waste management capacities, there is still a lot of work to be done.  Without solid investment, the economic incentive for informal recovery remains high, this means that engagement with WEEE in Africa must be tackled in a dynamic and comprehensive way.  To promote environmental protection, support must be given so that African countries are able to apply the best available techniques for e-waste recovery activities.

The Basel Convention’s report makes three main recommendations regarding e-waste in Africa:

  1. tackling the illegal import of waste or near-end-of-use equipment from developed countries
  2. promoting the collection and recycling of WEEE in-country
  3. developing proactive policies and legislation supported by well-resourced enforcement.

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