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Dell Tightens E-waste Policies

But green IT experts claim computer makers are still ducking their responsibilities in Africa and other developing countries

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Computer maker Dell claims that it is tightening up its policies around the export of so-called e-waste to the developing world but critics say this does not go far enough.

The company announced on Tuesday that it has become the first computer maker to ban the export of non-working electronics. “Dell is casting a much wider net. We broadly defined waste as non working parts and devices – irrespective of composition – we are banning the export of that waste from any OECD country to any non-OECD country either directly or through intermediaries,” said Mark Newton, Dell’s senior manager for environmental sustainability.

The 30 member countries of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development include the UK, US and Australia.

However, while the computer maker said it wants to clamp down on the export of devices that are sure to be broken down for scrap, Dell said that it does make the distinction between broken machines and parts and workable PCs which may be donated by organisations in the developed world for use by deserving causes in the developing world.

“We recognise that developing countries have a need for clean resources and functioning equipment therefore Dell’s definition of waste does not include material deemed not hazardous by the Basel convention, working equipment, and parts that are not destined for recycling but reuse or resale,” said Newton.

Also taking part in the announcement was Barbara Kyle, national coordinator, for the Electronics TakeBack Coalition – which includes organisations such as Greenpeace Toxics Campaign and Friends of the Earth.

“Dell’s e-waste policy is now the highest standard in the industry and we hope other electronics companies will follow dell’s lead – in fact we would like to see Congress adopt a model based on Dell’s standard,” said Kyle.

Kyle said that IT makers and end-users should ask hard questions to their recycling providers and where they send waste equipment. “Many of the companies that call themselves recyclers don’t actually recycle at all. Instead they export them to developing nations like China, India, Ghana, Nigeria, where they end-up in the informal recycling sector – basically backyard recycling operations where workers use very primitive and basic practices to smash and burn the products to take them apart,” she said. “They heat circuit boards over open flames and melt and remove the led solder and use acid to remove the gold from the chips.”

But Tony Roberts (pictured above), founder of UK IT charity Computer Aid – which sends donated PCs to the developing world – said that despite action taken by the likes of Dell and HP to tackle the e-waste problem, vendors could do more.

While Dell and HP are keen to discuss recycling, they are not as vocal about how hardware sold in Africa, Asia, and South America directly are recovered at the end of life, said Roberts. Vendors should take more responsibility for their products sold in countries which have no regulations about recovery of waste electronics.

“Under the Producer Pays principle of the WEEE directive, producers of electrical equipment are responsible for funding the end of life recycling of equipment within the European Union, but no such legislation exists for the millions of electronic products sold in Africa, Latin America and Asia. Producers should be made to accept the producer pays principle on a global scale, and take responsibility for the safe recycling of products in developing countries.

Roberts added that PC makers should also focus on improving design to make their products more sustainable. “They must also consider the design of their products and reduce their use of hazardous substances in the manufacturing process, so they can be more easily recycled.” he said.

Computer Aid claims it has refurbished more than 130,000 PCs and laptops, all of which are being used to support e-learning, e-health, e-inclusion and e-agriculture projects in countries such as Kenya, Madagascar and Zambia. The charity claims that it uses asset tracking ensures all computers can be traced to the exact hospital, school or project they are benefiting so that there can be no accusation of “dumping” worthless PCs in Africa.

The charity even launched its own campaign last year calling on the UK government to tighten up regulations around illegal dumping and given the UK environment agency more powers to more closely inspect containers of supposedly working PCs leaving the country that often contain ewaste.

“The Environment Agency must be provided with the resources to police e-waste, prosecute anyone involved in a supply chain that results in the dumping of e-waste and remove licences from organisations in breach of the WEEE legislation. It’s imperative that the government clamps down on fraudulent traders posing as legitimate re-use and recycling organisations, who are enticing unwitting UK businesses to use them for disposal of electrical equipment,” said former Computer Aid chief executive Louise Richards speaking at the time.