Electronic equipment

ICT reuse: better than recycling?

Businesses are missing out on generating a new revenue stream by overlooking the monetary value of reusing old ICT.

In these straightened times ICT expenditure is caught between the cost of equipment upgrade cycles, and having pay to decommission ageing kit; however, many businesses miss out on generating a new revenue stream by overlooking the monetary value of their old ICT.

Businesses often assume recycling is the default option to dispose of end-of-life ICT equipment, regardless of whether the equipment is actually at the end of its product life. However, the introduction of the EU Waste and Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) Directive in 2007 urged businesses to reuse instead. Furthermore, enterprises looking to expand or upgrade their ICT hardware can make saving by buying discounted stock rather than necessarily buying the latest-generation kit.   

The WEEE developed the first reuse standard, the Publically Available Specification (PAS) 141. Now reuse practitioners, equipment manufacturers, recyclers, environmental regulators, and government officials are called upon to raise the bar in the reuse sector. All ICT equipment sent for reuse will have to pass examinations, electrical safety tests, functionality tests, eradication of confidential data, and a warranty by the reuse organisation.  

The WEEE is demanding that less electronic waste is sent to landfill and more priority is given to reusing equipment where possible. By extending the product life it is less environmentally-damaging as it can enhance resource efficiency, save energy, and reduce water and air pollution. The UK Government has called for tougher measures to be taken to prevent electronic wasted being exported to developing countries where it can pose as a health and environment hazard. The coalition administration proposed that its IT departments should reuse and share ICT equipment and contracts, rather than purchasing new every time.

“As public sector cuts bite and unemployment increases, more equipment may be offered for resale than reuse,” says RDC head of sustainability Gary Griffiths, “but reuse is still expected to grow as it offers companies a means of recovery money by making savings by reusing ICT themselves, rather than buying new equipment.” The WEEE reuse standard reckons that up to 10,000 jobs could be created in the reuse sector once organisations start taking action.

According to Computer Aid International (CAI), an initiative that aims to tackle poverty through ICT solutions, Europeans generate ‘20kg of electronic waste per year’. They reveal still-functional ICT equipment enters the waste stream which could be reused, and businesses could in addition reap the socio-economic benefits. The fact that businesses are paying to get rid of ICT equipment to landfill is a huge oversight, CAI argues.

Reuse offers organisations with surplus or replaced ICT a chance to recover money from the sale of refurbished equipment or to save significant amounts by reusing ICT instead of buying more expensive all new products.

IT refurbisher Remploy E-cycle reported 80 per cent of IT directors do not take advantage of selling their old equipment. It estimates that 100 end-of-life computers could provide £7,500 revenue, which could fund extra training or part-time employees. To encourage businesses to reuse, Remploy E-cycle launched a campaign, ‘Reuse IT’ which aims to reduce the levels of IT waste being sent to landfill.

“It is obviously good that businesses are heeding the WEEE Directive and recycling ICT equipment, [but] we need to communicate to IT directors that recycling is the last resort and not the first,” says Remploy E-cycle general manager Malcolm Watson. “Our philosophy is always refurbish and reuse, and only dispose if a computer can’t easily be fixed. This is not only great for the planet, but also for a business’ bottom line.”

Earlier this year the CEO of Comtek (a provider of repairs, spares and support to the datacoms, telecoms, and network service industry) Ashkar Sheibani launched the ‘Re-use, Repair, and Reduce: 3Rs for a sustainable society’ seminar at the House of Commons. He advocates a change in e-waste culture, and calling on the Government to bring in practices to encourage organisations to sweat on their assets.

“Our policy makers in Government are in a position where they can change perceptions, change practices, and make a difference to the mounting problem of e-waste,” says Sheibani. “As a business we can make a change by creating local jobs, training staff, and being a source of developments.”  

Sustainability should not start and end at building more environmentally friendly solutions, policy needs to be creates which encourages organisations to make the most of their existing IT assets and to think twice before shelving perfectly usable solutions, Sheibani adds. His company also operates a profitable sideline in reselling unused ICT equipment from vendors and integrators which have gone into liquidation or been acquired.

At the seminar, RDC head of sustainability Gary Griffiths gave an insight on the new standard for the reuse of used and waste electrical and electronic equipment - PAS 141.

“PAS 141 is a new government specification due to be published at the end of March 2011. It aims to increase the amount of reuse and assure reusers that equipment is safe after testing,” says Griffiths. “We want to make PAS 141 certification a requirement for all players in the WEEE chain to raise standards.”

Anyone exporting WEEE overseas in compliance with PAS 141 will not be the focus of attention – “the illegal exporters will instead find the regulatory spotlight turned on them,” he warned.

According to Comtek’s Ashkar Sheibani, “Society needs to be educated. At the moment the workforce intellect is electronic equipment should only be replaced and not repaired. There needs to be a bigger emphasis on reduction of waste in government policies, soon companies will start doing this and they will save millions in cost.”

There are no disadvantages with reusing electronic equipment: “Some people say it can be unreliable but this is nonsense,” he adds. With reuse strategies leading to greater reduction in waste to landfill and savings in carbon emissions, Sheibani reveals there are social benefits to reuse too.  

Reuse of e-waste should be prioritised over recycling as we now have the technology to maintain lifecycles of products, Sheibani argues: “The social benefits include employment, sustainable jobs, and most importantly [ICT refitting] apprenticeships for the younger generation in the electrical engineering field. We can give them valuable skills in this tough employment climate.”

“For ICT equipment, reuse is markedly more environmentally friendly than recycle,” says Gary Griffiths, head of sustainability at ICT reuse firm RDC. “This is because production of ICT equipment with the many miniaturised and complex components is intensive.”

The Waste Hierarchy approach to end-of-life products is to ‘reduce, reuse, recycle, recover and dispose’. Griffiths explains why recycling needs to be the latter option. The recycling process involves transporting, sorting, and dismantling machines, separating parts into material categories, and then onto different streams. Recycling is a lucrative business as parts of ICT equipment remain valuable. Copper is relatively valuable, but can be difficult to recover from coated wires and circuit boards. Even circuit boards contain small amounts of gold, silver and platinum, which can be recovered.  

So-called ‘Digital dumping’ is still a concern for countries in the developing world. Electronic waste is taken to African countries where the equipment is sold at auction, but the majority of equipment is defective, and is often dumped. “When countries are incapable of assessing hazardous waste or even recycling them safely, donors should test their own equipment before exporting it,” says RDC’s Gary Griffiths. “European organisations in the public and private sector have a corporate social responsibility, so they should be helping developing countries reuse the right way.”

Third world countries lack knowledge on recycling and often young children work in environments, hazardous to their health. Bonfires are lit to burn plastic and recover copper cable, but this leads to a release of highly toxic dioxins in the smoke which the children inhale leading them to die young.

UK Government organisation Waste and Resource Action Programme is sponsoring the Centre for Remanufacturing and Reuse (CRR) to assist in preparing a new technology standard. The standard is already available for public comment through the British Standards prior to publication in November.

“It is difficult to compare recycle and reuse, but reuse benefits us much more,” explains Dr Ben Walsh, senior consultant at CRR’s parent company Oakdene Hollins. “Reuse is more environmentally friendly as it uses less energy to produce a reuse product, and more high skilled jobs are available. But it is difficult to test whether have been examined and brands can lose their identity in the process.”  

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