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Developing countries a dumping ground for old PCs

European passing the 'toxic buck' to Africa

Developing countries are risk of becoming a dumping ground for e-waste unless there are effective controls in place to stop Western countries from "passing the toxic buck".

So said analyst firm Gartner in a new report entitled 'Emerging Markets Are Becoming Dumping Grounds for Secondary PCs'.

"Although reuse must be considered preferable to most other forms of waste management, without effective controls, exports for reuse can be an excuse for dumping, and even in the best case result in 'passing the toxic buck' to emerging economies, which are seldom equipped to deal with this problem in an environmentally and socially responsible way," said Meike Escherich, principal research analyst at Gartner.

According to Gartner 37 million secondary PCs were refurbished and exported to emerging markets during 2008, and it is predicting that this number will rise to 69 million by 2012.

Until recently, old IT equipment usually headed to the nearest local landfill, but in 2007 the European Union's Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) directive became law in the UK which stated that e-waste must be dismantled or recycled by specialist contractors because of its toxic content.

WEEE Directive advice

Earlier this year however, an investigation revealed that thousands of computers and other e-waste items in the UK were still being packaged into cargo containers and shipped illegally to African countries.

Gartner says that these 'secondary PCs' will eventually need to be disposed of. In 2007, nearly 68 million secondary PCs had to be discarded worldwide. In emerging countries, approximately 15 million secondary PCs had to be discarded in 2007. Gartner estimates that by 2012, emerging countries will need to dispose of a total of 30 million secondary PCs annually.

"Without action, OEMs will find that an increasing number of their PCs will either end up in landfills or find their way into illegal or badly set up private 'workshops' for dismantling," Escherich said. "Neither will be advantageous for a vendor's 'green' credentials."

Gartner says that although some exported used PCs are handled responsibly in demand countries with effective regulatory regimes and by companies with advanced technologies, many end up in developing countries where they are frequently handled and disposed of unsafely. Emerging economies often lack the capacity to safely handle and dispose of used PCs, and extremely low labour costs and lack of environmental controls make unsafe recycling commonplace.

A leading exporter of refurbished IT equipment agrees, but feels Gartner should be encouraging PC makers to invest in recycling infrastructure in developing countries. Computer Aid International describes itself as the world's largest non-profit supplier of computers to developing countries. Next month, it expects to ship its 150,000 refurbished PC.

"It is correct to be concerned that emerging countries at risk of become a dumping ground for e-waste," said Tony Roberts, founder and chief executive of Computer Aid. "The key word is e-waste. We take a three or four year old computers, separate out the good pieces, and refurbish them so they can be used for another three or four years [in a developing country]." Broken or useless kit is recycled within the EC.

"Gartner should encourage the OEMs to put end of life recycling capabilities in place in Africa and the developing markets, in the same way they do so in Europe," he said.

"In Europe they pass the cost of recycling old computers onto the customer," he said. "We pay £5 ($8.26) more for each PC we buy in order to finance end of life recycling. PC makers that talk proudly of recycling in Europe, should be encouraged to do the same in Africa and South America."

"They pay [indirectly] for end of life recycling with European borders, but unfortunately their responsibility stops once they get to the Rock of Gibraltar. There should be legislation so they have to contribute to recycling of old equipment in those markets."


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