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Waste not, want not

Companies urged to put old IT equipment to good use in the developing world

Experts urged that the WEEE (Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment) directive should focus on the creative reuse of IT equipment. At a conference held today in London by Computer Aid International, one of the UK's leading PC refurbishers, speakers discussed how old technology from Britain could be put to good use in developing countries around the world.

Jon Godfrey, director of Life Cycle Services, outlined the problem facing today's businesses: "The lifecycle of technology is ever shrinking. We have technology lifecycles now of less than six months; the result is an ever-increasing volume of technology wastage. And that technology actually pollutes." In the UK alone over three million computers are either thrown away and buried in landfill sites or are retained by businesses, resulting in huge storage costs.

The aim of the WEEE directive is to cut down on both this waste and the pollution it can cause, but how individual member states of the EU actually achieve this will depend on their interpretation of this legislation. Computer Aid International is among those organisations that believe refurbishment is a more productive way of dealing with the problem than simply recycling.

Recycling is essentially breaking down electrical equipment into its components. But unless there is a demand for these materials, recycling doesn't solve the problem of waste and unfortunately the demand for materials from secondhand IT equipment is relatively low.

Nevertheless "reuse is a sound environmental proposition", according to Godfrey, who explains that "extending the life of devices is the key objective of the WEEE".

When the directive comes into force in August 04, producers of electrical equipment will be forced to pay for the treatment, recovery and recycling of goods — a cost which runs to about £65 per PC according to Godfrey. As a result, more and more used equipment will come back on to the market; currently only 35 percent of goods are being reused ethically, but the target is to raise this figure to 70 percent.

This is where organisations like Computer Aid International come into the picture. A professional computer refurbishing non-profit organisation, it is responsible for shipping old computers from developed nations to the third world. So far it has sent over 18,000 refurbished PCs to more than 1,500 schools and community groups in 75 developing countries. It plans to beef up this figure to 100,000 PCs per year by 2006.

But isn't shipping old PCs to the developing world just using it as a dumping ground for our rubbish? Not according to Computer Aid International's Tony Roberts. His organisation is working on a manual to explain how to recycle old equipment and is in talks with the UN about building recycling plants in poorer countries.

By refurbishing old computers CAI's aim is to help to bridge the digital divide between the developed and developing world, by exposing those in the latter to modern technology. The organisation's figures show that currently 99 percent of students in the developing never so much as touch a computer during their education.

This leaves businesses with a big problem when it comes to expanding into the developing world as the local population simply doesn't have the skills they require, leaving them with the huge burden of training. As Professor Alyson Warhurst, of Warwick Business School explains: "Business can't do business without addressing the digital divide. You can't do business without educating people in developing countries."

Thus the reuse of old computers kills two birds with one stone, relieving businesses of the burden of either storing or disposing of old equipment while helping to train a new workforce in the developing world.


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