The Need for Humanitarian Computer Refurbishment and Reuse

On May 15, 2012, TechSoup Global’s Director of GreenTech & Electronics Recycling & Reuse Jim Lynch provided expert testimony to the U.S. International Trade Commission in Washington, D.C. Here is his report.

The hearing was quite formal, just as I had imagined. All of us who testified were sworn to tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth. The hearing lasted all day. I was in the second of three panels and my panel lasted for over two hours. Charles Brennick of InterConnection and I each gave 10 minute opening remarks, and then the U.S. International Trade Commissioners asked us multiple rounds questions – good hard probing questions – they were well prepared by their staff.

Unfortunately, the hearings revealed that the electronics recycling and refurbishment industry as a whole has now become skittish about export due to high profile advocacy by environmental groups warning about the dumping of toxic e-waste.  Many nonprofit (and also commercial) refurbishers are no longer eager to send badly needed computers abroad for fear of negative publicity.

My testimony alerted the Commission to the fact that this environmental critique has also tended to dampen humanitarian computer refurbishment. Examples of humanitarian refurbishment can be found in the work of the World Computer Exchange and InterConnection which specialize in exporting refurbished PCs to poor and disaster stricken countries. Refurbishers like these supply complete computers with operating systems to schools, NGOs and low-income families -- but they go further. Both have strategic partnerships with the UN, the World Bank, the U.S. Peace Corps, several large corporations and, significantly, with NGOs in developing countries to foster an infrastructure for local repair as well as for distribution.

I closed my remarks by saying that reuse and refurbishment is the highest priority for used electronics, and of course it must include the responsible management of waste and non-working units. TechSoup is a proud member of the Electronics TakeBack Coalition, a consortium of environmental nonprofits that promote green design and responsible recycling in the electronics industry.  The first responsible recycling tenet of the Electronics TakeBack Coalition is reuse first.

We are working diligently on these goals, both in the policy and practical arenas, to insure that good affordable IT equipment is available to nonprofits, libraries, and everyone else around the world who needs it.

For more background on the hearings, see this earlier TSG Blog post.

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