May 8, 2009
Charitable schemes to send unwanted electronic equipment, including mobile phones and computers to the developing world could be creating more environmental problems than they solve if the equipment becomes entirely obsolete in a short time. Researchers in India have carried out an evaluation of the trade-offs between cost and environmental risks to prove the point.
There are many benefits to schemes intended to provide computer equipment to the poorer and less connected parts of the world. Primarily, these offer the donor the feelgood factor and on the face of it provide developing nations with much-needed devices.
However, according to Poonam Khanijo Ahluwalia and Arvind Nema of the Department of Civil Engineering, at IIT Delhi, in New Delhi, India, there is growing public concern over the hazards associated with computer and other e-waste. They suggest that a risk assessment that encompasses the whole lifecycle of computers and other equipment is needed before developing nations should accept charitable contributions of electronic equipment considered obsolete by the donors.
Using a case study of Chennai in India, the team has developed an assessment model that can help decision makers choose an optimal approach to e-waste management that looks at reuse time span of each waste category. The approach could help them avoid accepting contributions of electronic equipment that become obsolete and requires disposal or recycling within a short time.
Electronic waste includes the entire stream of electronic goods, including televisions, refrigerators, refurbished computers, large items such as car donations, and mobile phones, explain the researchers. Computer waste, however, represents one of the most significant of all these categories because of the rapid turnover of equipment, similar to the rapid turnover of car models that are adopting computer databases into its features, “With rapid growth and advancement in the IT sector, the average lifespan of computer has shrunk,” the team says, “And, with each new development, consumers often find it cheaper and more convenient to buy a new computer than to upgrade an old one.”
The rate of computer obsolescence in India is about 2% each week, which amounts to millions of computers requiring disposal each year. Added to this is the import of e-waste from other nations often provided through well-intentioned charities hoping to help bring the digital revolution to the developing world.
The absence of proper mechanisms and standards of disposal, mean these high-tech devices laden with toxic components, such as cadmium, mercury, lead, and brominated flame-retardants, often end up in landfills. Here, they can become a serious environmental hazard, particularly to ground water, the researchers say.
The team’s assessment model will allow managers to determine the optimum life cycle and lifespan of electronic devices designated elsewhere as e-waste. “This could guide the authorities to protect infiltration of computers coming in the name of donations and charity, by restricting their import after their optimum lifespan,” the team concludes.
Ahluwalia, P., & Nema, A. (2009). Evaluation of trade-offs between cost, perceived and environmental risk associated with the management of computer waste International Journal of Environment and Waste Management, 3 (1/2) DOI: 10.1504/IJEWM.2009.024705
There are many worthy charities and organisations offering computers to the needy in many parts of the world. This blog post in no way intends to besmirch their efforts but merely to alert the community to a potential environmental problem associated with growing numbers of obsolete computers and other electronic devices finding their way into the developing world.