Information and Communication Technology (ICT) continues to bring new opportunities to individuals and communities which are able to harness the potential of such technology as an empowering and life enhancing tool. One opportunity associated with ICT is the potential for local entrepreneurs to develop businesses for the refurbishment and recycling of used ICT equipment. This guide is intended to provide local entrepreneurs with a blueprint for the establishment of a business capable of receiving used PCs and related equipment. It will also provide guidance on how to manage such equipment in a profitable and environmentally sound manner, while ensuring worker health and safety.
Global technology revolution
Countries around the globe are rapidly gaining increased access to information technology, spurred on in part by surging domestic economies and the recognition by consumers of the benefits of access to information and global communication. Annual global mobile phone sales first topped one billion in 2006 and are likely to do so again in 2008. It is 27 years since the advent of the personal home computer and one billion PCs will be in use worldwide in 2008. Remarkably, over the next five years, this number is estimated to increase to two billion. According to a study (Forrester Research Inc.), Brazil, Russia, India and China will have more than 775 million new PCs by 2015, with China going from 55 million in 2007 to 500 million by 2015.
Cycle of use and disposition
As countries gain the benefits of increased access to information technology, they also face challenges in managing electronic products at their end-of-use. While recent studies have shown that ICT equipment makes up a small percentage of the overall compositional breakdown for waste electrical and electronic equipment in many countries (e.g. 8% in the EU in 2005), there are significant opportunities to capture value in used and end-of-use PCs and related equipment. Awareness and interest from consumers in efficient new technologies will continue to drive inefficient and old equipment into disuse, opening opportunities for recycling entrepreneurs.
Social and economic benefits of reuse
There are significant opportunities for local businesses seeking to recover the value in used and end-of-use PCs and related equipment. When old ICT equipment becomes obsolete, or is simply broken, ineffective or no longer wanted, it could still have economic value and should be managed appropriately at end-of-use. After a used PC is collected from its former owner, reuse is the preferred first treatment option, as it can allow for more users of the device at a lower cost, extend the return on the energy and resources involved in the manufactured product, and prevent the device from entering the waste stream. Reuse may require repair, refurbishment or upgrade if necessary.
Direct reuse and refurbishment have numerous social benefits as they allow the poorest people to have access to ICT at a lower cost. The United Nations Millennium Development Goal (MDG) Number 8 identifies the need for cooperation with the private sector to « make available the benefits of new technologies, especially information and communication ». ICT can serve as a powerful tool for poverty reduction and the overall achievement of the MDGs, accelerating development progress through (i) increased market access, efficiency and competitiveness, (ii) improved social inclusion of isolated populations, and (iii) political empowerment. In the field of education, ICT can provide distance learning, teacher training, greater availability of educational curriculum and improved administration. Greater access to ICT can provide remote health care services, improved patient information systems, and access to research and training. ICT can combat gender inequality and improve environmental sustainability, when harnessed and used effectively. However, when exporting used ICT equipment to developing countries or countries with economies in transition, consideration should be given to the need to ensure that environmentally sound solutions for the final disposal of end-of-life equipment are in place in the destination countries. For example, used ICT should be tested and certified to be really functional before they are exported and a control and testing system must also be available in the importing countries to prevent the transfer of ICT equipment that is not functional and therefore is a waste product.
Devices not fit for reuse, or unused components from repair, refurbishment or upgrade operations, should be disassembled and processed for recovery of raw materials in an environmentally sound manner. Scrap metal prices have soared in recent years due to shortages caused by increased consumption of raw materials. PCs contain valuable ferrous (e.g. iron), non-ferrous (e.g. aluminum, copper) and precious (e.g. gold, palladium, silver, indium, gallium) metals that can be obtained from dismantling computer cases, frames, wires, cables and other components. The rising value of these materials makes recycling more economically viable and attractive.