Sending refurbished PCs to developing country's is a great way to help the environment, argues Tony Roberts
On 1 July, new WEEE regulations were officially introduced, prompting HP and Dell to report their progress towards recycling and recovering e-waste. However, less widely reported were Michael Dell's comments about the huge potential of reusing the 125 million computers that come out of circulation every year.
Dell was responding to a question about the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) project, which aims to produce a $100 laptop for use by schoolchildren in the developing world.
He pointed out that most of the 125 million PCs discarded each year are about as powerful as the $100 laptop and raised some interesting questions. Would it be a better idea to re-use those computers? Could governments distribute them?
These questions have been answered by Computer Aid, a not-for-profit organisation that has already shipped more than 90,000 professionally refurbished PCs donated by UK companies for reuse in developing countries.
The vast majority of these PCs have been distributed to schools and colleges with the active support of host governments. Yet the success of the programme means Computer Aid is facing a severe shortage of donated PCs to meet increasing demand from developing countries.
Professors Rudiger Kuerh and Eric Williams from the United Nations University in Tokyo have shown that manufacture of a single PC needs 1.7 tonnes of materials, including the consumption of more than 10 times its own weight in fossil fuels.
Then there is the skewed distribution of consumption across the PC lifecycle. Most electrical products consume about 95 per cent of lifecycle fossil fuels when in use. However, 75 per cent of PC fossil fuel consumption has already happened before the computer is ever switched on.
This has crucial implications for business PC owners wanting to reduce the environmental impact of PC use. The high energy during manufacture is compounded by a PC's unnecessarily short lifespan. While most green IT efforts focus on reducing power consumption, a true environmental impact assessment must study the entire product lifecycle.
As 75 per cent of the environmental damage occurs during the PC production process, production redesign and extending a PC's usable life span are the most effective options to reducing their environmental cost.
Kuerh and Williams conclude that reusing a whole computer is some 20 times more effective at saving lifecycle energy than recycling.
A PC professionally refurbished by Computer Aid will enjoy a second-user life of another three or four years on a school desk in Africa.
If the IT industry is serious about improving the environment, as well as tackling the digital divide, it is time to make the switch to reuse by donating old PCs to charities such as Computer Aid. By effectively doubling the working life of every PC, reuse provides a simple way for companies to reduce their environmental footprint and successfully redistribute such valuable learning tools.
Tony Roberts is the founder and chief executive of Computer Aid International
This article first appeared in BusinessGreen's sister magazine Computing
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