Sunday, 30 August 2009

Computer dumping crackdown

Danny Fortson
This summer agents from the Environment Agency raided a farm near Upminster, Essex, and an industrial site at nearby Rainham, where they found more than 50 shipping containers full of old computers, monitors and other electronic paraphernalia.
The authorities impounded the containers and brought in more than 50 people for questioning. The operation, the biggest carried out by the watchdog, was part of a crackdown on the illegal shipping of old equipment for dumping abroad. The trade has exploded since 2007, when Europe’s WEEE (Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment) directive came into force, requiring manufacturers to provide for recycling old kit.
“Organisations have sprung up to exploit the system by saying they will collect it for recycling and then just dumping it somewhere abroad because it’s cheaper,” said Gerrard Fisher, sustainable products programme manager at Wrap, the government’s recycling adviser. “The challenge is getting hold of the stuff, to make people bring it in and then being able to track it.”
Dell thinks it has the answer. The world’s second-biggest computer maker is the first in the industry to offer free pickup of old computers when customers, businesses or individuals buy a new machine. The programme has been a big success. It has already recycled 125,000 tonnes of IT equipment.
The critical element, said Jean Cox-Kearns, recycling manager at Dell, is that roughly half that material is handled by firms that have signed up to what she called a “very burdensome set of requirements” that calls on them to provide detailed reports at every step.
She admitted that the audit trail on the other half, done through contractors funded under the directive to collect the electronic waste on behalf of the industry, is “not as clean”. She added: “There is a huge amount of informal collection and that’s what leads to these mounds in India and Africa.” The European Commission is in talks to tighten up policing of the directive but legislation is at least 18 months away.
By any measure, recycling is still in its infancy. Even with the convenience of home-pickup, Cox-Kearns said that fewer than 10% of customers take advantage of the offer. Most of the overall tonnage of old electricals recycled is accounted for by heavy items such as refrigerators and washing machines. Computers are more difficult to deal with; they must first have their data wiped and the plastics are often coated with a semi-toxic film of flame retardant.
The initiative is nonetheless indicative of a recognition by the technology industry that, like so many other sectors, it must start dealing with its environmental impact.
Green Idea: Bask in the eco glow of soya candles
Prince Charles is coming to dinner. How do you prove to him that you are greener than green? If you absolutely must show off your eco-credentials to dinner guests, you could opt for candles made from soya oil rather than the usual paraffin wax. Soya wax can claim to be more environmentally friendly because it comes from the soya bean, a renewable resource. You can find one supplier online at