An increasingly common strategy for promoting development over the past decade
or more has been that of donating used computers to organizations in developing
countries. Some organizations, such as Computer Aid International and World
Computer Exchange, do this as a non-profit venture while companies such as Free-
Com and Device Global do so on a for-profit basis (Bridges.org, 2004).
In either case the fundamental process is the same: people or organizations in
the more developed countries donate their used computers after the machines have
reached their expected usable lifetime. This lifetime is usually three to four years
for computers donated by companies and perhaps more for those donated by individuals.
Considering that computers have an overall average lifetime of perhaps
eight years, this leaves four or five years of functionality in the machine. Rather
than dispose of this functional equipment, the machines are donated to organizations
that sort them, do various amounts of refurbishment, and then ship them
Of course those who donate used machines are not doing it solely out of altruism.
Development of computer equipment progresses so rapidly that machines
that are only four years old possess just a fraction of the capability of new machines
and will quickly begin to experience problems with the latest versions of
software applications written for newer generations of computers. Rather than expend
maintenance energy on computers increasingly unable to handle the latest
software, computer owners consider upgrading every three or four years simply
part of the cost of ownership.
The computers being shipped overseas are by definition obsolete, and yet they
are still functional. Considering the financial constraints in developing countries it
clearly makes sense from a private economic perspective to purchase obsolete but functional computers at low cost—or even better, to receive the machines free or
for the cost of shipping.
Since the fundamental principles of personal computer operation have changed
little over the last 20 years, older computers still exhibit similar educational potential
both for end users and technical staff. The used machines may not run the
latest software, but they run some software and that is better than nothing. They
may break down at a higher rate than new computers, but to ingenious computer
lab managers in developing countries, failing equipment is simply an opportunity
to teach hardware maintenance skills.
On the face of it, shipping used computers to organizations in developing countries
is a win win proposition. Those donating the machines have them taken
off their hands—generally at no cost—and get warm recognition for helping to
“bridge the digital divide,” while those on the receiving end get usable equipment
at low cost.
But this private economic perspective is too simplistic and overlooks the possibility
of external societal costs. Ultimately the donated computers will be scrapped
when no more use can be coaxed out of them. What happens to them at that
point? Are they dumped in a landfill and left to leach out toxic material into the
ground water? Are they broken down for recyclable materials, exposing local communities
and those doing the processing to toxic dust and smoke? What environmental
costs may they impose on the society they were intended to assist? And
how can these environmental costs be balanced against the societal benefits of the
Further inspection of the transportation of used computers reveals that the
non-profit scenario described above makes up only a small portion of the overall
trade. The larger portion of the sector is driven by the private economic interests
of companies and individuals seeking to profit from the exchange of used computers. Private, profit-seeking companies may be more prone than non-profit organizations
to ignore the environmental and societal externalities of the trade. As
a report by the Basel Action Network (BAN) says, “[t]he reality is that this burgeoning
new trade is not driven by altruism, but rather by the immense profits
that can be made through it, and those involved are oblivious to or unconcerned
with its adverse consequences.” (Puckett, 2005, p. 2) Within the for-profit sector
there is a division between a few large companies like Freecom and Device Global,
which appear to see their mission much as the non-profits do, and innumerable
small outfits interested in just shipping computers for profit.
Although it may be impossible to quantify the effects of computer end-of-life
issues to the degree necessary to compare them with the economic benefits incurred
from computer use, it is only reasonable for the donating entities, processors,
and recipients to consider these issues when deciding what machines to donate,
process, and accept.
This paper describes the primary benefits and costs of using refurbished computer
equipment for development and places these costs and benefits in the context
of the electronic waste issues. The paper does not reach strictly quantifiable
conclusions, but frames the issues and indicates what concerns stake-holders
should consider when deciding whether and to what extent to utilize refurbished
This approach necessarily examines the societal costs and benefits in addition
to private concerns, which may hold weight for those interested in using refurbished
computers for development and are interested in societal changes, not
simply private benefits—particularly government and non-profit agencies.
Cayford, Steven. Waste 2.0: Environmental Issues in the Use of Refurbished Computers for Development. May 20 2009. June 3 2009. Hubert H Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs
Plan B paper in partial fulfillment of the Master of Science, Technology, and Environmental Policy degree requirement
Waste 2.0: Environmental Issues in the Use of Refurbished Computers for Development.
Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs.
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