Dell e-waste director: don’t ban secondhand computers

Dell e-waste director: don’t ban secondhand computers

To bridge the digital divide, Africa needs to see waste as a resource then build an infrastructure to reap the benefits

E-waste recycling in India

Training the informal sector to handle e-waste properly is key, says Jean Cox Kearns from Dell. Photograph: Manjunath Kiran/EPA

Why is e-waste an environmental problem?

When recycling infrastructure is in place, e-waste is not an environmental problem. The problem arises when it is not treated correctly and this is a problem in developing countries.

Despite having highly effective informal networks for recycling, there is often no effective treatment for waste. The most predominant way of dealing with e-waste is to burn it to extract its valuable materials. This causes environmental and health problems. At Dell we are working towards the environmentally-sound management of obsolete electronics. Through our Take Back programme we are working to ensure e-waste is collected and reused rather than discarded and burned.

Is the depiction of developing countries as ‘dumping grounds’ for e-waste accurate?

The view that developing countries are dumping grounds for e-waste is changing. If you look at the volumes of e-waste in Africa, it is not always the big brand technology companies that are doing the importing, even though it may be their products that end up as waste. Increasingly it is local importers in developing countries who are buying and importing second-hand electronic products from companies in other regions. Developing countries are actually generating more and more of the e-waste themselves.

Do you think a lack of regulation is behind the problem?

Latin America and Africa are the main regions that remain unregulated. The big challenge is that there is a lot of e-waste regulation in developing markets, but it is very uncoordinated. When we talk to governments in Africa, one of the things we say is don’t reinvent the wheel. Countries just need to tweak legislation so it works for their economy.

The second issue is that the necessary infrastructure to support the legislation is often absent. Although you see these horrible pictures of sprawling e-waste in developing countries, not all of these countries have it in a volume that is going to encourage a big recycler to invest in building the necessary infrastructure. This is why we are saying they should work towards regional solutions. Through our work in east Africa we are seeing the first developments in infrastructure happening in Kenya. Let one country, such as Kenya, be the recycling base for other countries.

Are there any issues around using the term ‘waste’?

The first thing I say when I speak at conferences is to say we have to stop talking about waste as ‘waste’ and start talking about it as a resource. In many developing countries, particularly those in Africa, the growth of the IT sector is key to development. People are looking for affordable solutions to bridging the digital divide. In Nigeria, we are providing IT access to children via a series of mobile solar classrooms, made from old shipping containers.

Many people depend on recycling and sorting e-waste for an income. How do you balance the regulation with the possibility of job loss?

We feel it is incredibly important that we recognise these jobs and try to formalise the work. The solution is starting out with embracing the informal sector – training those workers and teaching them how to handle e-waste properly. The idea is that you establish the view that all e-waste has value not just the valuable material that comes from burning it. Instead of only being paid for things like copper, informal workers would get paid for everything they collect. We trialled this in Mombasa and in a week collectors were happy to stop burning e-waste.

What is the biggest misunderstanding about e-waste?

The big misconception is that the best way of dealing with e-waste is to try and stop the waste coming in to a country, rather than focusing on solutions.

We’ve seen a lot of countries ban the import of secondhand products thinking that they are getting ‘waste’. This has a serious negative impact. Uganda has formally recognised the impact of this legislation on their ability to bridge the digital divide.

Our commitment is still not to ship waste, but the most important thing for those countries is solutions. As long as there is a solution for waste, it can be managed: you can create value and you can create jobs.

Jean Cox Kearns is the director of compliance at Dell. Follow@JeanCoxKearns on Twitter.