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Last Updated: Monday, 8 March, 2004, 15:34 GMT
How to make computers greener
Refurbishing an old computer can often be a better option than throwing it away, argues Tony Roberts of the charity Computer Aid.

1: Lead in cathode ray tube and solder
2: Arsenic in older cathode ray tubes
5: Antimony trioxide as flame retardant
4: Polybrominated flame retardants in plastic casings, cables and circuit boards
3: Selenium in circuit boards as power supply rectifier
6: Cadmium in circuit boards and semiconductors
7: Chromium in steel as corrosion protection
8: Cobalt in steel for structure and magnetivity
9: Mercury in switches and housing
Recycling of electrical goods has become headline news in recent months as the UK consultation on the forthcoming EU Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) Directive hots up.

Producers, manufacturers and retailers are all gearing up with as much panic as gusto to be "WEEE compliant" by August 2004 and consumer concerns are rising as reports surface from the likes of analysts Gartner suggesting that it will be the consumer that will pick up the bill for additional costs.

Research carried out previously by UN researcher Eric Williams proves empirically that re-use is better for the environment than recycling.

The majority of PCs routinely disposed of for recycling by businesses and consumers alike are actually far from their real end-of-life and could go on to give as much as 6,000 additional hours of use.

This year alone will see two million working Pentium PCs buried in the British countryside as people embrace the latest technology on offer. Quite simply it is consumerism gone mad.

In stark contrast to this, in the developing world, 99% of children leave school without ever having seen or touched a computer in the classroom.

Even at university level education in Africa, access to PCs is severely restricted with 15,000 students typically having to share access to less than 80 computers.

Vital contribution

So what should be done about it?

  • Changing Attitudes: The WEEE Directive will go some way to encouraging a change in society's attitude towards electrical waste. But bringing about such a significant change in behaviour will take a number of years to be really beneficial.

  • Manufacturing responsibly: In the quest for WEEE compliance, companies are being forced to look not only at how they design and source materials for products but also what will happen when they are no longer functional. They will have to assess the environmental impact of a PC throughout its lifecycle.

  • Education and infrastructure: Before the directive becomes legislation in the UK, there will have to be a comprehensive campaign to educate people in the UK about recycling electrical equipment to prevent them from continuing to just dump it in landfill. There will also have to be investment in recycling centres as currently there simply is not the infrastructure in the UK to deal with electrical take-back on the scale necessary.

  • Make a difference: Computer Aid International encourages people investigating PC disposal to consider various issues. If their machine is a Pentium II, 233MHz, 2Gb hard disk and 64Mb RAM or higher spec it is more suitable for reuse than recycling.

Always ensure old hardware that could contain valuable data is disposed of safely and securely. This does not mean that the machine has to be destroyed.

Computer Aid provides multiple overwrite data destruction on all hard drives to US Department of Defence standards securely rendering all data unrecoverable.

If you do want to donate equipment to the developing world, ensure that you do it through a professional organisation that is working with people on the ground to provide essential technical support and training for incoming hardware.

And be realistic. Many people still believe that their old PC should be worth more than the current market value.

Sadly second-hand PCs do not fetch a premium. However if you are realistic and you do not hang on to it for too long, your old equipment can make a vital contribution to the education of people who otherwise would remain forever trapped on the wrong side of the digital divide.

Tony Roberts is chief executive of Computer Aid International, the world's largest supplier of professionally refurbished PCs for re-use in the developing world.

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