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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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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The journey to ISO 14001

Last week I attended a short, but intense, one day course on behalf of Computer Aid with Global Action Plan in London – the EMS Easy course. This was a great overview of how SME’s can set-up, monitor and improve on an Environmental Management System (EMS) within their organisation. Being new to the area of environmental management (and the UK’s systems!) it was great to get this start-to-finish breakdown of how it all works – and hopefully start on greening up the Computer Aid office!

For any other novices such as myself out there, an Environmental Management System (EMS) is a plan to help businesses identify areas of improvement and reduce their environmental impact, engaging staff and bringing about some positive change to the organisation as a whole. Computer Aid is by no means a villain when it comes to environmental practice in our offices, (in fact we already have recycling and power-saving schemes in place) but there’s always room for improvement!

The EMS Easy programme itself is designed to help SME’s in the UK tackle the daunting task of attaining ISO 14001, a standard aiming to have organisations minimizing their environmental impacts, while complying with applicable legislation, and continually improving on their practices. No small feat, but one that I think Computer Aid is already well on its way to achieving. We are up to speed on all the necessary permits/licences as far as current WEEE reuse and disposal requirements, but, as in most offices, there is still plenty of opportunity to reduce environmental impacts – and save cash at the same time.

The ISO standard looks at the ways in which the organisation is making efforts to minimise its environmental impacts. In the case of Computer Aid, for the most part this means that the EMS will focus on office-based activity at our London headquarters. So, Step One – we’ll be taking a tour of our office to produce an eco-map, highlighting any areas for improvement/overhauling, and sending around a quick survey (a ‘weathermap’ in EMS Easy terms) to find out how everyone feels about our environmental impacts and where they would like to see improvements.

I’ll be writing some new posts as we make our way along – wish us luck in the start of the journey to ISO 14001! Thanks again to Jonny at Global Action Plan for the advice and for having us along for EMS Easy, lunch, and the bottle of worm-juice for my garden 🙂

Jon McCullough