Old PCs Are Re-Used, Not Recycled, In Developing World

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Computers sent to countries such as Peru don’t automatically get broken down for parts but are often re-used

Rather than being crudely dismantled and harvested for the value of components, many old computers sent to the developing countries don’t simply end up as e-waste but are often reused for several years in an intact state, according to research.

The study of the fate of imported PCs into Peru, conducted by Ramzy Kahhat and Eric Williams of the Arizona State University, points to at least the legal imports of PCs being based more around re-using machines than breaking them down for their parts.

“Analysis of shipment value (as measured by trade statistics) shows that 87 to 88 percent of imported used computers had a price higher than the ideal recycle value of constituent materials. The official trade in end-of-life computers is thus driven by reuse as opposed to recycling,” the researchers concluded.

Although the study only looked at one country, the research raises interesting questions about preconceptions about second-hand computers being shipped to developing countries. Environmental charities such as Greenpeace have attacked the practice claiming that old computers sent to developing countries were bound to end up in the waste stream eventually and cause environmental and health problems for the workers involved in breaking them down.

“Many old products are exported to developing countries. Although the benefits of reusing electronics in this way are clear, the practice is causing serious problems because the old products are dumped after a short period of use in areas that are unlikely to have hazardous waste facilities,” the organisation states.

The Peru study appears to be mainly focused on legal exports of old PCs, and most experts agree that illegal exports of e-waste should be outlawed. However, the Arizona State study does seem to indicate that legal shipments of working PCs should be encouraged rather than criticised as simply another form of dumping.

In the UK, Dell and HP have both acted to prevent end-of-life PCs from being sent to projects in the developing world, citing fears of illegal dumping, despite evidence that re-used PCs can be an important educational resource for schools and colleges in developing countries which can’t afford new machines.

The opposition of PC makers to sending old PCs to developing countries could also be related to the fact that that emerging economies are also an important and growing source of sales of new PCs.

IT charity Computer Aid UK, which refurbishes old PCs before sending them to non-governmental organisations in Africa, Asia and South America, says that 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.

But the company’s chief executive Tony Roberts told eWeek Europe UK recently that he opposes the movement of all e-waste from developed to developing economies and that agencies sending professionally refurbished equipment should be licenced and inspected by the govenment Environment Agency. “Anyone shipping unprocessed WEEE should be jailed,” said Roberts.

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The Peru study however did identify some environmentally questionable practices for machines that were no longer usable and were broken down for parts. “Environmental problems identified include open burning of copper-bearing wires to remove insulation and landfilling of CRT glass,” the report stated.