Green Experts Say Re-Use Old Tech Before Recycling


It’s better to sweat assets and extend the life of technology than simply breaking it down says Computer Aid in a BCS debate

Rather than thinking purely in terms of recycling old hardware when it is no longer useful to them, companies should consider whether PCs and other technology can be re-used by other organisations, a panel of Green IT experts have said.

Speaking at a meeting organised by the British Computer Society this week, experts from companies such as Sun Microsystems, IT charity Computer Aid, and hosting company Memset discussed a variety of approaches to sustainable use of technology including whether recycling is actually as environmentally friendly as it is widely portrayed.

Director of marketing and communications at Computer Aid International Anja ffrench, which provides refurbished PCs to deserving projects in developing countries, argued that rather than use recycling schemes offered by PC makers such as Dell and HP,  enterprises should realise that their obsolete computers may still have a use in other organisations.

“There is such a massive demand in Africa and South America from schools and hospitals for equipment while we in the UK are getting rid of millions of computers every year and only a tiny minority is being responsibly reused,” she said. “We would like to see the Government create more incentives for companies to ‘re-use’ their equipment in this way.”

Much of the government’s policy around sustainable use of technology has been focused on energy efficiency and recycling via legislation such as the Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) Directive. But speaking at the Green IT ’09 conference in London in May, Cabinet Office deputy champion for green ICT Catalina McGregor hinted that the government was beginning to think in terms of the life-span of technology and may encourage the public sector at least to use technology for longer.

“For the first time we are getting really good information out of Japan, out of the Swiss, and a number of countries about the carbon footprint of creating kit – how much water goes into creating kit, silicon, sand and on an elemental level – so please keep your eyes open because the math from that production is going to help us make a better judgment call on how long we keep our equipment,” she told an audience of government and private sector IT pros at the two day show.

A recent US survey from IT management company Spiceworks found small to medium-size businesses (SMBs) are holding on to their servers and laptops longer these days but most are also planning to make significant investments in new hardware and software over the next six months. The average planned lifespan of hardware, which includes desktops, laptops and servers, increased 26 percent from 40 months to 50 months, the report found.

According to a 2003 academic study, Computers and the Environment: Understanding and Managing Their Impacts, 75 percent of the environmental harm caused by PC use occurs in the extraction, manufacture phases of the life-cycle – before a PC is used for the first time.

Also speaking at the BCS meeting was Jim Craig, UK head of social corporate responsibility and sustainability at Sun Microsystems, who discussed some of the efforts the server maker has made towards improving the sustainability of its products including avoiding painting some of its equipment. “Sun cuts down at the design stage on the amount of raw materials that go into our computers. Also, we don’t use plastics and don’t paint the metal of servers,” he said.

But despite touting the company’s green efforts, Craig admitted that given the current economic conditions, his business was focused on providing financial as well as environmental benefits to customers. “Economic benefit and return on investment are key to customers in the current economic climate, no matter how ecological the proposition. We are seeing an uptake in business because we satisfy those two areas,” he said.

Sun is currently in the process of being acquired by database maker Oracle but the deal has been stalled by an European Commission probe announced this week.

For its part, the BCS said it is committed to helping its members with challenges around Green IT and has even developed a specific qualification in the subject. Announced in May, the Foundation Certificate in Green IT will provide guidance on issues such as corporate social responsibility, environmental legislation and carbon emission reduction.