The problem of e-waste and its solution are well known, says Peter Judge. It is only our laziness that allows the scandal of toxic dumping
We have had an electronics industry for fifty years now, so the issue of dealing with devices that have been discarded should be a thing of the past.
Yet, once again, it has been shown that broken electronic devices are being exported as waste to developing countries from the UK. An Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) report demonstrated that broken TV sets were being sent from waste recycling company EWC to Africa, and a BBC Panorama programme detailed the human cost to children trying to eke out a living in a toxic “digital graveyard” in Agbogbloshie, Ghana.
WEEE export is illegal
The issue is simple, the crime is evil and the perpetrators are cynical.
It is illegal to export waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE) for reprocessing. It must be disposed of in landfill or recycled here – and the European WEEE directive attempts to increase the amount that is recycled, to keep it out of landfill.
The reason that deception works is that we want to see our equipment re-used. We know that re-use is better than recycling. But there are very few reliable and easy ways to make sure that this happens.
Firstly, the WEEE rules don’t deal adequately with the possibility of re-use. They set targets for the amount of waste that is recycled (as opposed to being dumped in landfill) but they don’t set any targets for the amount of equipment that is re-used.
Secondly, while it is possible for companies like Comtek to do good business in recycling and re-use, it is difficult, because companies wanting to sell new equipment make it harder, and users may not trust second hand equipment. The PAS 141 standard may help here.
Do the right thing
The fact is that most of the IT equipment which is dumped is either working, or easily repairable – and since there are many people needing kit, it is wrong to dump it. The charity Computer Aid suggests asking a series of questions about the recycling process.
“The majority of PCs sent for recycling have at least three to four years’ further life in them.” says Anja ffrench, director of marketing and communications at Computer Aid International. “Many thousands of computers are scrapped and sent to developing countries as e-waste causing significant health and environmental problems for local populations. At the same time there is an urgent need for working computers and laptops in hospitals, charities and schools in developing countries and sending tested and refurbished computers to countries such as Ethiopia or Zambia can significantly reduce poverty.”
“Donating PCs to Computer Aid helps reduce the problem of e-waste as well as tackle the causes of poverty in developing countries through the provision of practical ICT solutions,” she says.
Computer Aid collects, data wipes and refurbishes unwanted IT equipment before sending it to not- for-profit organisations in developing countries. It uses SWEEEP, a recycling company which Panorama said is an example of good practice, and which will not send anything to landfill.
The problem has been solved. There really is no excuse for any electronic waste ending up in African digital graveyards. It’s time to make sure that we – and any recycling company we use – does the right thing.