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What Should We Do About the eWaste in ICT4D?

By Guest Writer on October 3, 2011

Over the past few years of activity on the Educational technology Debate forum, we’ve read a lot of many examples of how ICT in education projects have improved and innovated practice, making access to education more modern and accessable. At the same time much criticism has been focused on projects that, despite best intentions, focus first on hardware provision without sufficient consideration of how it will be used to improve learning, effectively wasting the investment.

Many of us have witnessed firsthand this kind of wasted investment—i.e., underutilization of equipment—but how many of us are still around to see the long-term consequences of high-input ICT projects, such as those designed to give every child access to computers, either through large computing labs, mobile laptop stations, or one to one computing?

  • What happens when those computers reach the end of their lifecycle?
  • Who is responsible for disposing of them when the project that purchased them is no longer active?
  • How many projects today are integrating this type of foresight into their design and costs?
  • What donors are requiring that type of planning from their implementing partners?
  • Which client governments are requiring such action as part of international aid programs?

For the past three years, the ICT for Education and Training group at RTI International has been looking at these questions, and developing strategies and protocols for approaching ICT in education interventions with a focus on realistic, effective inputs for the present, while planning for the effects of those interventions in the future.

Why? Because although some may argue that informal electronics recycling—i.e., picking and sorting through piles of electronics at the dump—provides a reasonable income for some people (for example, a Kenyan can earn up to $3/day; in Guiyu China, about $8/day—much more than farming), the question is whether or not it is safe and adequate. In most cases, it is not. When we don’t properly recycle, there is human and environmental damage from direct contact with toxic substances, inappropriate methods for extracting raw materials, hazardous working conditions, etc.

Additionally, we are ignoring the market potential for additional sources of sustainable and safe livelihoods, while losing raw materials that will have to be re-extracted (with all of the associated environmental problems that come with that.) Thus, the idea of e-waste for us is more than just a by-product of development projects; instead, it can become “the development project”, led by countries in an effort to spark new, safe, and sustainable economies. It is a human as well as environmental concern, both of which have long-term impact on development and improving the human condition, our key mission.

What can be done?

Recycling is just one possible approach to e-waste management, and a broad one at that. The least desirable approach to e-waste management is no management at all, but rather the direct disposal of unwanted equipment and materials using environmentally unsound practices, such as dumping and incineration, and bypassing all efforts to reuse or recycle. We talk a lot about how to use ICT in education, for good reasons. But we don’t talk enough about how the principles of “Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle” should be integrated into ICT in education projects.

Purchase smaller devices—tablet computers and mobile devices, for example; purchase more energy efficient devices; purchase fewer but sufficiently powerful devices (i.e., Thin Clients); extend the lifecycle of the equipment that you have through effective preventive maintenance, proper handling by users, and repairs–this also provides an opportunity for vocational and technical training within the school, organization, or community.

In addition to the preventive maintenance described above, when equipment can truly no longer function as its original purpose, it can still be reused or repurposed. For example: refurbish one new device out of parts from other non-functional devices; use non-working devices in vocational and technical training courses to understand parts and how, for example, a computer is put together; repurpose devices into totally different objects, for example computer chips and circuit boards have been “upcycled” into luggage tags , jewelry or art.

Despite best efforts, there will always be parts of equipment that cannot be reused or repurposed. The key is to ensure that prior to disposal one considers all responsible recycling options: plastics can be ground or shredded and sold back to plastics manufacturers; parts can be sorted and resold for refurbishing purposes; metals, primarily gold and silver, are recovered by commercial recyclers. The recycling option should aim to create new, viable and safe sources of livelihoods in the community, such as sourcing, separating and sorting parts and then reselling them to appropriate manufacturers.

Examples of Success

In Egypt’s Manshiyat Naser district, also known as “Garbage City”, girls come one day per week to learn how to turn trash into income. With the help of a trained teacher, the girls break down non-working computers collected by the Zabaleen (garbage collectors) or donated to the association, and rebuild them into working computers. Each working computer can be sold for approximately $300 on the local market, with half of the proceeds going directly to the girls, and half funding the warehouse facilities and trainer. The parts that can’t be repurposed into a new computer are sorted for recycling, including the valuable gold and silver of microprocessors, motherboards and circuit boards.

Kenya is emerging as one of the leaders in e-waste management, having convened The National Stakeholders Workshop on Waste of Electrical and Electronic Equipment (e-waste) Nairobi 2010. They are also one of the first African nations to have a comprehensive-government-led e-waste policy and strategy and there are recycling facilities set up to handle it. Computers for Schools Kenya (CFSK) a non-governmental organization, dismantles computers into metals, wires, plastic, aluminum, copper, monitors and electronic boards which are then sold separately. CFSK also converts the monitors into television sets by replacing its boards with those of televisions.

An eWaste “code of conduct” for development partners?

When engaging in development activities, particularly ICT in Education projects that aim to introduce considerable amounts of technology infrastructure, we must act responsibly with regards to e-waste. There are many opportunities, or “entry points” to integrate responsible e-waste management into our projects.

At the proposal stage:

  • Build e-waste considerations into the proposal, with budget (for example, budget for responsible export of e-waste, local recycling if possible, for training and advocacy events, etc.)
  • Integrate partnerships with IT companies, private sector partners, community-based organizations, and waste management facilities
  • Budget for a rapid situation analysis of government policies and procedures surrounding e-waste management.

During project implementation:

  • Require eco-friendly materials, or manufacturer take-back agreements (‘producer pays principle’) as part of hardware specifications and evaluation criteria for large procurement contracts.
  • Include in training programs strategies to help extend the lifecycle of computers, and clear instructions for what to do with non-functional equipment.
  • Conduct advocacy and policy support by work with government counterparts to advise them on long-term considerations and collaborate on developing appropriate actions and solutions

At project exit stage:

  • Ensure proper handover of used equipment–including project office equipment–to local organizations that have the capacity to restore, refurbish and recycle it.
  • Insist on transparency in reporting to project donors, stakeholders, clients, etc. on both successful and challenging aspects of electronics recycling and ensure that they have a road-map for the future based on project experience.

However, e-Waste management cannot be externally driven in the long term. Therefore, our most critical responsibility is to support national governments to address this issue and to increase their own capacity for end-of-life processing of e-waste. We can:

  • promote and support the establishment of recycling facilities as part of economic growth and workforce development projects.
  • participate in and foster effective environmental lobbies in countries where we work so that citizens also put pressure on governments to create such facilities and enforce appropriate legislation.
  • encourage governments to develop appropriate legislation to protect themselves and promote development; for example, by outlawing the importation and dumping of foreign e-waste.
  • encourage the re-use of electronics through social programs that donate equipment to schools or hospitals, and subsidize recycling of e-waste when reuse is not possible.

Further research needed

As a community, we can make a larger impact faster by working together. First, we need more information on who is doing what, which donors and which governments have policies and procedures related to e-waste, and where we can find common ground. Some important questions remain from an institutional perspective:

  • What is our e-waste “tolerance”?
  • At what point does this become a clear “hazard” that cannot be ignored?
  • What constitutes a “significant” amount of technology input in a project?
  • Is this only relevant to ICT in Education projects?
  • What about our project offices?
  • Do we practice what we preach in our institutions both at home and abroad?
  • Do smaller devices necessarily contain less e-waste per unit?
  • Are donors likely to view e-waste considerations as a positive or a negative contribution to projects where it is not expressly requested?
  • What about the health and environmental effects of the use of electronic devices even before reaching the disposal phase (i.e., increased electricity consumption and hazards related to long-term exposure to cell phones, wireless internet, etc.).

We welcome your contribution to this ongoing research, by sharing your experiences, activities and opinions.

A version of this piece was previously presented to the 54th annual conference of the Comparative and International Education Society (CIES) in Chicago, March 3, 2010. Background research was commissioned by RTI and carried out by Amos Cruz, and submitted to RTI International as an unpublished research paper entitled “Electronic Waste: Considerations and Solutions for Integration of Information and Communications Technologies in the Developing World”, August 29, 2009. A multimedia version of the presentation is also available

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